Can horses help you heal?

Using Equine Assisted Psychotherapy for mental health issues


author image - oliviah

By Oliviah Rix-Taylor

on Wednesday 30 May 2018


horse standing in distance

I am a large animal that is flighty and highly sensitive to my environment. I am not easily bullied or manipulated into doing something I don’t want to do and it will take a long time, and much consideration on my behalf, to gain my trust. I rely heavily on effective communication and positive, functional family relationships. What am I?

I certainly could be either; a horse or a human - and this is what makes Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) so effective.

Americans, who have historically held the monopoly on this field of therapy, notoriously wear their hearts on their sleeves and see the beauty in everything. Therefore, a quick Google search of EAP YouTube videos might make the slightly more reserved amongst us feel like it’s all a little too corny for comfortable viewing. But EAP is becoming more and more popular in the UK and the Brits’ slightly more cynical nature sheds a more logical light on using horses to help people recover from mental health issues.

At its heart, EAP is still a rigorous psychotherapy session with a trained and qualified therapist, whilst the horses, although integral, circumnavigate the therapy session with a distinct air of disinterest. They really are just there to assist – but what does this assistance actually entail?

Experts in the field of EAP believe that the similar natures of horse and human, alongside the dichotomy of predator and prey instincts, allow human emotions to be reflected and explained by the reactions of the horse. This allows psychotherapists to gain some valuable insights into some of the issues a person may be dealing with, but most importantly, allows the person themselves a very honest and accurate reflection of their behaviour.

The therapist remains the ringmaster, orchestrating the interactions and drawing out valuable messages that are trying to be conveyed, but ultimately it is the client who deciphers their meaning. This unnerving stage play between human and horse unfolds without a single word being spoken, yet the communication between the two is somehow, undeniable.

There are several videos on the internet that depict this bizarre interaction, viewed and narrated by a qualified therapist, of human and horse essentially trapped in an enclosed space, trying to work each other out. In each video, it is easy to see how the response of the horse is caused by the behaviour of the individual. Those who are on edge, quick, and bordering on aggressive get a similar response from the horse. Those that are quiet, reserved and distance find themselves in an arena with an animal that will turn away from them, create a large physical distance and disengage.

Eventually, the person will see that the only way to approach their horse is to change their own behaviour. They slouch their shoulders, slant one hip, drop the rope – and wait. Their patience is rewarded more often than not and the inquisitive horse, most likely thinking of his belly, decides to put a little faith in this relaxed and patient figure and meanders over hoping for a treat.

The lesson; to be observant, present and aware, is not always the same. Sometimes a person is too reserved for the horse to respond. The objective then shifts and the person must engage and become responsive to any changes in the horse's behaviour. They must be reactionary and proactive, building meaningful interactions with an animal whose only concern is to not get hurt, and with any luck, to get fed.

It may be disappointing but the likelihood of an ancient spiritual connection between horse and man is rather slim. The real connection here is a behavioural one, but this in no way diminishes the power of the psychological mirror that the horse can provide us with.

People suffering from PTSD, psychological trauma, alcoholism, and many other mental health issues have reported the enormous benefits of this form of therapy. The media have focused on PTSD sufferers as the main beneficiaries of EAP, however, this is most likely because pitting a war veteran against a thoroughbred makes for a more startling headline, unfortunately skewing public perception into thinking that EAP is exclusively used for PTSD sufferers.

The reality is that EAP is now being used to help treat many forms of mental health issues and is experiencing great success in helping affected people recover. The testimonials on accredited websites are enormously encouraging for new and emerging therapies that are person-centered, rewarding and insightful.

For the skeptics amongst us, being convinced of the heart-warming spectacle of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy may be off-putting. But dive under its deceptively glittery surface and you will find the dark and murky depths of behaviour, where the self-centered and mistrustful natures of human and horse are so entangled that it’s impossible to discern who incites whom – and that is where you will find the true beauty.

If you have suffered from psychological harm from abuse or from an accident that wasn’t your fault then EAP at centres like this could help in your recovery. Claiming for compensation can provide you with the financial means to fund alternative methods of therapy. If you are not interested or are not eligible to claim for compensation then there are some centres (like this one) in the UK that provide EAP via the National Health Service.

If a search for PTSD or other mental health issues has brought you here and you are looking for more information, then the charity Mind offer excellent advice and support.

If you have been in an accident that caused you psychological harm and you would like more information on the claims process then call us on the number below for a free consultation. Our staff are industry experts who believe in the human side of personal injury claims. They’re here to listen and to help.

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