Sunday, 6 March 2016

Not just horsing around - psychologists put their faith in equine therapies

Health professionals say horses can reflect our emotions to bring relief from addiction and stress.

A horse will move away from an angry person
and follow someone they trust, says one therapist
In a Sussex field, a large bay horse is galloping around, tail held high. This magnificent creature is one of a new army of animals that is helping therapists to treat everything from addiction to autism to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Reports show that dogs, already known to be invaluable helpmates for blind, deaf, diabetic and epileptic owners, were also being trained to help dementia patients.

Now the psychological benefits of working with horses are being recognised by growing numbers of therapists who work with autistic children, young people with behavioural problems, adults with depression or celebrities with addictions.

"The horse is the perfect mirror, they are very emotional beings; we're only starting to realise how intelligent they are," said therapy counsellor Gabrielle Gardner, of Shine For Life, watching the horse dance around his pen at a farm in Blackstone, a village a few miles north of Brighton.

"A lot of my clients start off being very nervous, so I wouldn't always use such a big horse. One of the reasons I think equine-assisted therapies work so well is that everyone has a reaction to horses; nobody is indifferent. People either love them or fear them, so that's two big emotions that immediately reflect what most of life's issues revolve around. If you can work with an animal like this and overcome the fear, then it isn't a bad starting point."

Gardner has worked with all types of clients, including young offenders, and says a horse picks up on the way people are feeling, mirroring their emotions and responding. As a herd animal attuned to stress and body language, a horse will move away from an angry person, follow someone it trusts and be unsettled when it senses fear.

"It's especially good for people who don't take to talking therapies. Counselling is not a 'one size fits all'. While you might forget a conversation you had with your counsellor a few weeks on, it's unlikely you'll forget what happened when you stood in a field with your counsellor and a horse. It's not like patting a dog; it's a big animal."

Gardner, who runs sessions for clients alongside a mental health professional, says the sudden explosion in popularity of horse-based therapies has been helped by the success of the book and film War Horse and a TV series that saw Martin Clunes investigate our relationship with the horse.

But another reason is the runaway success of the therapies in the US. Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (Eagala), a US-based organisation, trained 1,500 therapists in Britain in 2011. Coral Harrison, from Cumbria, is their regional coordinator for Europe. "We're seeing hundreds of new inquiries, whereas a few years ago it would be a handful."

Scientific research remains thin on the ground and the therapy's effectiveness remains mostly anecdotal, although The Priory clinic offers equine-assisted therapies, while in the US equine-assisted activities and therapies have attracted celebrity clients including Robert Downey Jr and Sophie Anderton. American horse trainer Franklin Levinson is establishing a regular base for his courses in Dorset, working with troubled children.

"It has been clinically documented that just being around horses changes human brainwave patterns. We calm down and become more centred and focused when we are with horses," he says. "Horses are naturally empathetic. The members of the herd feel what is going on for the other members of the herd."

The Horse Boy Foundation - set up by Rupert Isaacson, who wrote a book about riding in Mongolia with his autistic son - is running a new program of equine therapy camps this summer for autistic children and their families in Britain.

Such efforts have the tentative approval of mainstream scientists. Dr Nicola Martin, an autism expert at the LSE, said she thought anything that brought children and families together would have a positive effect.

"It's certainly not about healing or curing, because autism is for life, but being out in the countryside, close to nature, doing something enjoyable like interacting with horses, has got to help families come together."

In Scotland a charity called HorseBack UK is achieving tremendous results using horses to rehabilitate injured and traumatised members of the armed forces. Jock Hutcheson, a former marine, had retired to breed horses when he offered to take a group of former combatants riding. Self-confessed as "horse daft since I was three", he said that even he hadn't expected the horses to have such a huge impact. Last year he had 156 people through his Aberdeenshire centre.

He said the trick was offering "mobility with dignity". He added: "Soldiers don't make good patients and they don't want pity, but we want to create a way for them to come back into the world again. The horses have had an enormous effect on them, empowering."

Using animals as therapy is not new: the Greeks documented the horse's therapeutic value in 600BC and French physician Cassaign concluded in 1875 that equine therapy helped certain neurological disorders. Dolphins were used in the former Soviet Union to treat nervous disorders and rabbits lower stress levels in American old people's homes. 

By the 1950s British physiotherapists were exploring the possibilities of horse therapy for all types of disorders. The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) was founded in 1969 with the enthusiastic support of the royal family and the Queen still shows a keen interest in the work of Californian horse whisperer Monty Roberts, who has been working on bringing horses and troubled children together for several years.

Whether scientists will ever prove that they offer real medical value, our love of animals shows no sign of abating. As Churchill said: "There's something, about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."


Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Horses give immediate direct feedback about any change in behaviour - what works, what doesn't work, what is helpful and what is not helpful…

Friday, 11 December 2015

Oklahoma policeman drives miniature donkey to safety

A police officer in Norman, Oklahoma, got a very strange call on Tuesday about a suspicious individual wandering around a local neighborhood — but not just any individual ... a donkey. The seemingly lost donkey, nicknamed Squishy, was found along a busy road, and the concerned police officer didn't want him to get hit by oncoming traffic. So, he gave him a ride....

It's not everyday that you see a donkey in the backseat of a police car!

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

How Autistic Children can Benefit from Equine Therapy

For thousands of years the bond between man and animal has proven to be effective in creating an emotional, healing bond. Horses are used by physical, speech, and occupational therapists to reach their patients on a personal level through what is referred to as “hippotherapy”. Children with autism also benefit from equine therapy due to the motor, emotional, and sensory sensations that come with riding a horse (Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation).

Creating the Emotional Bond
Autistic children have difficulty bonding emotionally to others. As the parent of an autistic child, you know that it is hard for your child to make eye contact, communicate what he is feeling, and express himself to those he cares about. Rather than verbal communication, autistic children experience physical communication with the horses. They brush them, hug them, and pat them. By learning to care for the horse, they associate the care they provide with feelings and an emotional bridge is constructed. This bond can lead to social and communication skill production with other people in his life as well.

Cognitive and Language Skills Development
Autistic children often have difficulty comprehending normal directions. By engaging in equine therapy, a child follows directions through a fun activity that makes taking direction easier to grasp and remember. They will also give the horse direction, which provides them with more opportunities to communicate. The child is naturally motivated to move; thus, s/he's excited and motivated to communicate. During therapy cognitive concepts will naturally improve. For example, equine therapists have children throw colored balls into baskets while riding, touch their eyes, mouth, and ears during a song, and identify scenes - all incorporated during riding.

Sensory Benefits
Balance and spatial orientation are experienced through the vestibular sense organs. These are located inside the inner ear and are stimulated through direction change, incline, and speed. Riding a horse helps liven these sensory preceptors, which helps make therapy exciting and motivates the child to continue to be engaged.

Getting Access to Equine Therapy
Equine therapy is highly beneficial to children with autism. It helps them develop natural, core skills they need to function in society. But it is expensive. Contact your local RDA centre.

Monday, 19 October 2015


Shumbashaba is not your usual horse programme. It's a nonprofit community organisation that focusses on how horses can positively impact people and help to change lives for the better.

They run projects and programs in which horses are helping people to reach their full potential as spiritual, physical and emotional beings.

Shumbashaba’s Horses Helping People programs reach out and touch the lives of a great many people, the majority of whom come from Diepsloot, a neighbouring township on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, home to some 250,000 people, where unemployment, poverty and crime are rampant.

People with and without disabilities are welcome to use the services of Shumbashaba. The income earned from private fee-paying clients is an important source of income which contributes towards running our outreach programmes for participants who cannot afford it. The outstanding funds are raised through fundraising events and donations.

In recognising the long and key role horses have played in our history and by harnessing the power horses have to impact meaningfully on humanity Shumbashaba has developed therapeutic programs that involve both riding and non-riding.
  • The therapeutic riding program offers hippotherapy for people with disabilities with the opportunity for them to progress to riding as a sport & recreation.
  • The non-riding program offers life skills and counselling using the EAGALA methodology recognised world-wide as being a powerful way of helping people restore a sense of self-worth and purpose, key ingredients necessary to improve lives and help people reach their full potential. 

Shumbashaba Horses Helping People programs are recognized locally and internationally. In 2012 Shumbashaba won the FEI’s (International Equestrian Federation) Development Award for its grassroots ground-based equine assisted psychotherapy and counseling programs offered to township youth. 

In the same year Shumbashaba won the local Letsema Award given by Murray & Roberts and offered in association with SASCOC (S.A. Sport Confederations & Olympic Committee) for its therapeutic riding programs for people with disabilities from formerly disadvantaged communities. 

Shumbashaba has gone from a one-woman operation offering a therapeutic riding service to people with disabilities to a registered non-profit Trust offering a range of Horses Helping People programs, that have touched the lives of well over 1,600 people.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Horses Helping Humans on the Isle of Wight (EAQ®)

Experiential learning through horses

Bodster Equine Assisted Learning is an EAQ® Approved Centre based near Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Jo and Giles have a herd of horses and ponies who are helping children, young people and adults to learn new skills and take part in accredited courses and qualifications.

The Centre works with anyone from 6 to 90 years including complex needs such as Autism, Asperger's and Downs - in a supervised horse environment.

For Example: "TheStep-Up Program"

The Step-UP Program, in association with the Open College Network, offers equine facilitated learning and qualifications and is ideal for those who find it hard to cope with traditional schooling, have been truanting or are at risk of truanting, struggle with poor literacy and numeracy skills or are being bullied.

For Example: "Time out for Young Carers through Horse Activities"

Bodster EquineAssisted Learning won the Aviva Community Care Award to provide funding to offer a free opportunity for 10 young carers on the Isle of Wight to have respite experiencing fun interactions with ponies (on the ground). £1000 allowed 2 groups of 5 learners to experience 2 afternoons per group with two Bodster staff (total 8 hours per learner) completely free.

Why this Program? Providing such an on-going caring role to family members can impact emotionally, physically and socially on such carers. These young carers and their families often lack the funds to take part in such activities  and by creating such a link Centre would hope to be able to offer further subsidised courses for them in the future.

Each afternoon the children had the opportunity to meet the ponies in a non-threatening environment where they had time just ‘being’ with the ponies. They were encouraged to learn how to look after the ponies through grooming tasks, complete creative tasks such as drawing and taking photographs and learning how to lead and be with the pony loose in the round pen. 

They had the chance to connect with a pony and choose a pony to walk with them. They were encouraged to choose what they want to do and the freedom to ‘play’ and devise their own leading games with the ponies.

The very therapeutic nature of such sessions allowed these young carers to have time to reflect and discuss their feelings. By mixing with other children of similar age to them they will have real time to socialise and develop friendships which they could to continue to develop after the course.

The project also offered one-to-one support for each ‘carer’ participating to look at how they could access the service in the future and the centre is working on how to devise further ongoing sessions of respite for them in the coming years.

This program enabled young carers to have time to be “just children having fun”. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

Online Horse Course: Introduction to Basic Care & Management

Free Horse online course – University of Florida

There are over 100 million horses, donkeys and mules in the world today and owners of these animals can be found on almost every continent and in almost every society. 

This online Horse Course covers many unique aspects of equine ownership and touches upon the science behind many of today’s management practices.

The Horse Course is intended for a wide audience from novices interested in learning more about horses, donkeys and mules up to the experienced owner who is interested in the science behind the many management techniques practiced today.

Course Syllabus

Week 1: Introduction to the history of horses and donkeys
Week 2: Basic equine anatomy- coat colors, markings and hoof care
Week 3: Equine behavior and training
Week 4: Feeding management
Week 5: Maintaining equine health- first aid, parasites and disease
Week 6: Breeding your horse or donkey

For more information on this free online course visit:


Coursera is an education platform that partners with top universities and organizations worldwide, to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.

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