Horses as healers: How, Why, When? by Dr Rosie Jones-McVey

Posted on August 25, 2020 by Categories: Blog Post Tags: , , ,

Picture this. In North London, surprisingly close to skyscrapers, famous landmarks and tube stops, there is a hidden gem of green space and natural beauty. Horses graze amid oak trees and butterflies dance through hedgerows. There, on one windy afternoon, in an outdoor arena, I watched a group of eight 13-15 year olds in loosely organised chaos. They did not look like the teenagers I am used to seeing around horses. These were not pony club kids. They wore trainers, not boots, and they fell about laughing and screeching every time a horse farted. They had been set a challenge, to get an 11 hand pony, Princess, over a tiny cross pole. But the snag – they couldn’t touch Princess, use a halter or lead, nor use food. Princess stood sighing and farting as the group fell about in no sort of order. One boy shouted instructions as though through a loud speaker, but his excitement turned to anxiety as his team mates refused to follow, or even acknowledge his ideas. He climbed onto a mounting block in a frantic bid for the attention of his peers and continued to jump frenetically and shout his pleas into the wind. Two girls had decided to build a wing on the side of the jump to stop Princess going round it, and set about doing that, but they had no time to finish before another lad was attempting to drive Princess over the jump by wind-milling his arms in her general direction. Another lad used a very similar arm motion while repeatedly jumping over the jump himself, in the hope of encouraging Princess to follow him. One lad stood passively, almost invisibly, shoulders slumped, eyes to the ground, near the corner of the arena. I had learned that he had never spoken a single word to his teachers or class mates.  To me, this task seemed impossible. Not the task in itself, Princess seemed perfectly capable of rational communication, and the tiny jump was no big shakes for a well seasoned girl like her, so long as the request was put to her in the right way. But for this group of teens, struggling so profoundly with interpersonal skills and emotional balance, I just couldn’t see it happening. It was painful watching. I so wanted them to have a ‘win,’ and to succeed.  I’d have jumped over that jump ten times for them, to avoid the arguments and prevent the possibility of the group experiencing a failure. But Princess held out for real improvement. She was offering nothing that was not properly earned. They didn’t get her over the fence that day. But on their visit the following week they did, and this didn’t just surprise me – it floored me. And in the weeks that followed I watched more and more successes, and experienced more surprises, as silent students began to speak up, anxious students were soothed, and awkward, underconfident students developed a sense of mastery and fulfilment. As the weeks passed, they became more gentle AND more powerful, and I learned something about letting people learn, too.

This session is just one snap-shot of the wonderful things that are being accomplished by Learning Through Horses (LTH), an equine assisted learning charity that I am working with at the moment. And LTH is just one among many similar charities and programs run all over the country – in fact, all over the world. The sheer size and speed of development in this sector of work is rather mind blowing. In fact, this exponential growth is one of the things that I am studying as part of my new postdoctoral fellowship at Christ’s College, Cambridge. By no means are all of these programs versions of the same thing. Firstly, equine assisted learning is slightly different from equine assisted therapy. Whilst both might overlap, programs that specifically call themselves ‘therapy’ are more likely to be targeted towards treating mental health conditions. For example, LTH is partnered with  Strength Through Horses, which offers equine assisted therapy sessions with qualified mental health professionals. In contrast, equine assisted learning programs might focus on personal, communication and emotional skills and confidence, often with groups of young people or corporate groups. The referral process, funding source, and staff training for Equine Assisted Learning and Equine Assisted Therapy are often different – though some programs blur the line between the two more than others. Programs are also different in terms of who they help – some specifically work with addition recovery, family counselling, or corporate skills development. Some are honed towards work with autistic children, or empowering female survivors of abuse, or treating military veterans suffering with post traumatic stress disorder. Some work through one to one sessions, others use group therapy and learning environments. And then there are different styles of program too – programs follow different theories of psychotherapy, psychiatry, psychology or counselling. Some involve mindfulness training, or experiential therapy, some use cognitive behavioural therapy, or neuro-linguistic programming (there is no room to explain all of these terms here, but you get a sense of the variety, I hope). Some use horses alongside other animal assisted therapies, or outdoor adventure experiences, and some incorporate more traditional classroom-based or counselling elements too. They may be also be accredited to different certification schemes – more detail on one of those in a moment.

Clearly many different projects, with many different perspectives on mental health and wellbeing, are developing their own systems and styles. What they all have in common, is that they have found horses to be an invaluable ally in helping to improve human health and wellbeing. Why horses? I’ll detail three points, though there are many more. Firstly, their sheer size. Even 11 hand Princess is pretty big and strong compared to the average human. If people are not used to being around big animals like horses, they might feel vulnerable, and this vulnerability can be good. It can prevent people from running through their usual patterns of manipulating others, or using abrasive or threatening behaviours. On the other hand, it can also lead to a real sense of accomplishment and self confidence once that initial vulnerability is conquered and challenges are overcome. A second helpful trait is horses’ responsiveness. Horses react to even subtle changes in human attitude, because they are highly attuned to reading body language. This can help people to become more aware of their own mood, and the impact of their own state of mind on others. A third factor is that horses are social creatures, but not verbal communicators. This gives people the chance to build relationships with horses, to get to know individual horses, and to work towards mutual understanding, trust and collaboration. However, because only the human can talk, this also gives the session leaders an opportunity to see what sort of issues or challenges the humans are likely to project onto the horse’s behaviours. For example, when a horse rolls in the dust to scratch an itch, the therapy client might interpret this as the horse mocking and disrespecting them. This provides a chance to explore what sort of patterns people may experience and recreate in their relationships with others.

Given these factors, and the success rates of many programs, it is tempting to see horses as naturally or innately good for human souls. In fact, that is the sort of message that comes through some of the advertising that accompanies some of these programs. But it can’t be simply innate for horses to fix humans – we all know of too many instances of very unkind, unclear, distressed, or mentally unwell horse people. Atilla the Hunn came on horse back, and I don’t think he was good news. So it can’t be that horses just naturally make people healthier, kinder, and more moral. For one thing, that would undervalue the real skill that goes into making these programs work well. Since it is a quickly developing field, it is worth a word of warning here – these programs do not all work as well as one another. While it seems to be many people’s dream to help people through using horses, the reality is not always so easy to accomplish. In fact, I have come to realise that while very good programs seem to work naturally, as though the right lessons come at the right moments from the horses themselves, there is a lot of skill that goes into facilitating and enabling positive progress. Horse/human interactions are just as likely to go wrong – and sometimes very wrong – without the right guidance. People and horses can get very hurt – and not only physically, but emotionally too. Good sessions are a bit like magic tricks – everybody is so busy focussing on the horse, they don’t notice the tactful, careful, sometimes almost invisible involvement of the leader to ensure the sessions are safe and beneficial. Session leaders need to be extremely good horse-people and also extremely good people-people. Some programs divide these responsibilities into two roles. This is the approach taken by EAGALA (Equine assisted growth and learning association), which requires certified centres to utilise one trained mental health practitioner alongside one experienced equestrian. On order to enrol in EAGALA training, the experienced equestrian must be able to demonstrate their own continued learning – particularly of horse psychology and body language skills. The skillsets and outlooks of equine assisted therapy/learning programs dovetail well with Intelligent Horsemanship – both are respectful, safety-conscious, solutions-focussed approaches that emphasise non-verbal communication skills. This is why we are seeing an increasing number of students on our courses who either already work in equine assisted therapy/learning, or who have that career in mind.

The other reason I am keen not to keen to think of  horse-healing as entirely ‘natural’ is because I can see that the sorts of things we can learn from the horse has a lot to do with the sort of society we are living in. We are not the first group of people to think that horses can improve human health and personal skills, throughout history and across geography, horses have been linked to human wellbeing in different ways. Did you know, for example, that the word ‘management’ evolved out of the 16th century French word for training and controlling horses (as did our name for the place where that is done, the manege)? So the way we think about leadership has been tied up with the way we think about horsemanship for a long time. Ahh you might say – but this only strengthens the idea that horses are natural improvers of mankind, and that people may have had an awareness of this over the ages. But people have not always understood health, virtue, or communication in the same way, and so they have not always looked for the same sort of lessons from their horses. For example, in his 17th century manual of elite horsemanship, William Cavendish believed horses would respond to the true virtues and leadership qualities of their riders. This is what made displays of prestigious horsemanship so powerful for demonstrating that kings and elites deserve to be leaders, and ought to be trusted, respected and obeyed. There are a lot of inspired and effective ideas in Cavendish’s manual. But Cavendish’s sense of ‘healthy’ and skilful leadership has some important differences from ours – for example, he sees no issue in using physical coercion and violence alongside caresses and understanding. For him, fear is an important part of a righteous, just and loving relationship between rider and horse, just as it should be between king and subject, or god and man. The idea that love might be built upon fear isn’t quite the model of horsemanship, or leadership, that we hope people learn when they interact with horses nowadays. Clearly, what we are able to learn from the horse has a lot to do with the concerns and values that we hold as a society.  So, my research also asks, what is it we want to learn from our horses now? Why is it that horses have been particularly recognised now, as the answer to some of our societies’ problems? What is it that we are collectively worried about?

Get involved

If you’d like to be involved in my research, you can email my research address at . If you’d like to get involved with equine assisted therapy or learning, have a look for your nearest providers to see if they need volunteers. Learning Through Horses, along with many other EAT/EAL programs, will be struggling to survive Covid19 – please consider them for donations or fund raising efforts (www.learningthroughhorses.org).

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