Mindfulness teaches us to appreciate the present and for those dealing with mental health issues, it can be a useful tool to call upon. When it comes to learning about mindfulness, sometimes the best teachers may not need to speak it all.
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is not a new concept but has a rich history of helping people.
It was first recorded in late 18th century England where patients at a country retreat were free to wander the grounds populated with small domestic animals, according to James Serpell, and was also adopted by the infamous Bethlem (Bedlam) Psychiatric Hospital to assist its patients.
Today, many hospitals, nursing homes, schools, universities and even some workplaces use AAT to help relieve depression, anxiety and stress in their communities by way of animal petting zoos, with rabbits and guinea pigs, and even therapy puppies with their little harnesses and wagging tails.. But have you heard of therapy horses?
Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) is utilised in many schools and follows the same its basic premise as AAT – we can use horses to help deal with and overcome issues in our lives. While many of us dreamed of winning blue ribbons on a pony as a child the idea behind equine therapy is not to improve your horse riding skills or compete in show jumping but to create a psychological bond between human and horse – sometimes this involves no riding at all.
Camilla Mowbray is an Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) Practitioner. She has spent most of her life on and around horses and has long recognised their healing and therapeutic powers. But she first became involved with EFL when a clinical psychologist asked her to work with some of her patients. She explains that EFL and all equine assisted therapy is quite different both from other forms of equitation and traditional therapies.
“As EFL is not technically psychotherapy, nor are my clients typically willing or able to share their feelings or insights around their depression. My role is to provide a safe place for the client to experience a mindful interaction with the horse… EFL does not typically include riding sessions, although I do offer a small amount of mounted work in my EFL practice,” she says.
“Whether or not EFL includes mounted sessions, it is not dangerous, and even those who are fearful of horses learn – usually in the first session – to feel safe, and to enjoy and embrace the genuine, affiliative, kind and respectful nature of the horses.”
In the last hundred years horses have gone from a main-street staple to a rare sight, and for many their first experience with them can seem frightening.
“Many people will experience some fearfulness before interacting with the horses, which transforms into joyful, calm feelings while in the presence of the horses,” Camila says. “It is this experiential feeling of being able to intuitively move out of a state of anxiety and to feel empowered that can be a starting point for many clients to subsequently take to their CBT or life-story therapist to discuss.”
One of the areas in which AAT is seen to be having the most progress and success is in dealing with emotional regulation. Whether this is helping individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anger management issues, anxiety or depression, being with horses seems to help.
“Working with horses allows people to enjoy an empowering physical and social experience in a natural environment. Horses exemplify mindfulness;they live very much in the present moment,” Camila says.
“Horses are able to reflect human emotion non-judgmentally and seek feelings of safety and peace through a secure attachment and clear intent as communicated by the people around them.”
Practitioners often cite EFL as an especially effective therapy for calming and settling participants. Because of the prey-nature of horses, quiet and calm are essential conditions to effectively work with them. Although it may sound counterintuitive it is often those participants who have the most issues with emotional regulation who gain the most from EFL.
“One of my most recent clients, “Jack”, is a 15-year-old boy who lives in residential care.“Jack has been in a lot of trouble over his lack of emotional regulation and resultant behaviour, including anger escalating into violence,” Camila says.
“Initially, Jack was very agitated and anxious – he was fearful about the horses and what they might do to hurt him. During his first session, Jack did not even want to touch a horse, however, he eventually allowed them to nuzzle his hand, and was very curious about their behaviour, their motivations and their feelings.
“From the beginning, it was obvious that all the horses in my team were really attracted to Jack – this is not something he has experienced much in his life, being a big, strong, angry youth, who people tend to judge and avoid. However, he is authentic and curious, to which the horses responded well. Jack is also very perceptive and has been able to reflect on the horses’ behaviours and interactions, and the similarities and differences to his relationships to other people.”
Another interesting aspect of EFL is its focus on language. Camilla explains the language used in EFL is carefully geared towards non-judgmental non-hierarchical words.
“Activities with the horses are designed to allow clients to develop confidence in reading body language and communicating a clear intent. This also provides opportunities for examining beliefs around motivations and also labelling,” she says.
“The language we use reflects this; for example, a client might ask, ‘How can I make the horse do X?’ We discuss how it is probably impossible to make a half-tonne animal do something, but it is possible to ask. If the horse doesn’t comply, the client is prompted to reconnect and to communicate their intent, and success will usually result.
“Many clients struggle at school, but working with horses allows them to practice staying attentive, to carry out plans and to become competent. It can also be eye-opening for clients when we find alternative descriptions to judgemental labels such as ‘naughty’, ‘lazy’, ‘greedy’ and ‘cheeky’ in relation to the horses’ behaviours.”
However, it is important to note that while these therapies seem to be a pleasant and effective form of treatment for a wide variety of mental health issues, there is no definitive research on its effectiveness. Psychologists disagree as to the reliability of studies conducted into AAT and many feel that there is little scientific proof it works. This is an issue practitioners are well aware of.
“I believe that EFL, in order to deserve wider recognition, needs to provide more evidence of its efficacy. Those of us who are involved are, of course, convinced, but I’d like to see more studies into its effectiveness in terms of the outcomes achieved, and the particular populations for which the various modalities are best suited,” Camila says.
Despite the lack of empirical research, personal testimonies and circumstantial accounts appear to indicate that for some people dealing with mental health issues, Equine Assisted Therapy can make a world of difference.
There are many schools and trained psychologists and psychiatrists specialising in this form of therapy, if you or someone you know is interested in giving it a go.