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Caring for and interacting with animals has many proven health benefits. As it provides people with companionship, comfort and a strong sense of wellbeing, it’s no surprise that animals have been used for therapeutic purposes throughout history.

Whilst a range of animals can be used in therapy, including dogs, cats, guinea pigs and even fish, equine therapy (therapy involving horses) has been found to be particularly effective in helping individuals to process and change negative behaviours.

Here, we explore equine assisted therapy in more detail, and discuss the benefits we see when using horses as part of addiction treatment at Priory.

What is equine therapy?

Equine assisted therapy is a holistic, experiential and highly specialised form of therapy that involves working in collaboration with a horse, your therapist and an expert horse handler.

During sessions, you don’t actually ride the horse. Instead, you carry out tasks such as feeding, grooming and leading the horse. Sessions usually take place in small groups, where you may have specific tasks or ‘obstacles’ to overcome. After sessions, you have the chance to discuss your experiences and emotions with your therapist.

Ultimately, the aim of equine therapy is to help you to discover more about yourself, develop new ways of thinking and change any negative behaviours.

What is equine therapy used for?

At Priory, we primarily use equine therapy to support addiction treatment. We are pleased to be able to offer this innovative therapeutic technique at a number of our Priory sites, including Priory Hospital Roehampton, Priory Hospital Woking and Priory Hospital North London, as a key element within our Addiction Treatment Programmes.

What is the goal of equine therapy?

At the beginning, your equine therapy sessions will focus on helping you overcome any initial uneasiness, empowering you to develop and nurture your relationship with the horse.

Working with horses requires patience, understanding, discipline and responsibility. Horses can be stubborn one day and playful the next, meaning that you need to be flexible, innovative and open to altering your behaviour.

By working through equine therapy, you can develop skills such as communication, self-control, problem solving and accountability, as well as improving your self-esteem, empathy, flexibility and independence.

It gives you the opportunity to discover more about your capabilities, develop new ways of thinking and change negative behaviours. For example, by working with the horse, you may start to notice self-defeating thought processes or negative patterns of behaviour which may be contributing to your addiction, giving you to opportunity to take steps to overcome them.

What are the benefits of equine therapy?

Many of the benefits of equine therapy are likely due to the nature of the horses themselves. Horses are naturally gentle and calm creatures, and are able to mirror and respond to human behaviour, meaning that they are highly effective at interacting and working with others in a patient and non-judgemental manner.

Those who struggle to articulate how they’re feeling often find equine therapy useful as they’re able to express their emotions and feelings with their horse. In addition, individuals who find it hard to trust others or be intimate with people, can often achieve a strong bond and a level of closeness with their horse, and experience affection, acceptance and mutual respect.

Equine therapy doesn’t just result in psychological benefits - it has physical benefits too. Equine therapy has been found to reduce people’s blood pressure and heart rate, and help to calm physical symptoms of conditions such as anxiety and stress.

Hear about equine therapy from the experts

Consultant Psychiatrist, Dr Niall Campbell, says: “At Priory, we’ve been using equine assisted therapy for many years. There’s a number of aspects to equine assisted therapy. First of all, it’s coming out into the beautiful environment and being with lovely animals. Other aspects of it are about controlling a one-tonne animal as a team. It enables patients to identify emotions which sometimes they find difficult to express inside groups. We’re very pleased with the results we’ve had from it.”

Andreas Liefhooghe, one of our expert horse handlers, says: “The big question that people have when they come here is what horses can actually give us in terms of psychotherapy. Horses are very social animals; they engage with each other, they engage with us. That whole process of exploring how can we connect to horses, what can we learn from them, what do they tell us about us, is the core of any equine assisted psychotherapy programme.”

Hear from our patients

Peter’s* story

Peter came to Priory struggling with acute social anxiety and alcohol addiction. He had developed a habit of using alcohol to make social situations easier, which had led to his addiction. In the days leading up to his first session of equine therapy, Peter was very anxious; his behaviour towards his peers and therapists changed dramatically and he became irritable and tense.

On the day of his equine therapy session, Peter became very quiet and withdrawn. However, when Peter was paired with his horse, Harry, he discovered that by asking for support from his peers and therapist, he was able to touch the horse and work closely with him. As his confidence grew, Peter began to feed and stroke Harry, who remained still and patient throughout the session. Through equine therapy, Peter found courage, learnt that his anxiety can be irrational, and learnt that by taking things slowly and asking for support, he could achieve things that he never thought he would be able to.

Fatima’s* story

Fatima came to Priory struggling with addiction issues, and underwent equine therapy as part of her treatment programme. During a session, Fatima was visualising her recovery journey and walking through various ‘obstacles’ with her horse. When they reached a ‘nurturing’ obstacle, Fatima began to whisper to her horse about her emotions of grief and loss, which up until this point, she had not been able to talk about during group therapy sessions. Her horse responded to her in a gentle and soothing way, and stood between her and the rest of the group in a protective manner, nurturing her. As a result of this experience, Fatima was able to start talking about her grief and loss during group therapy, and how these emotions may be contributing to her addictive behaviours.

One of our former addiction patients said: “For me, equine therapy was a very clear memory from treatment. One of the things that I really took away from it was [when] we looked at the horses grooming each other. Where one horse wants to be groomed, he groomed the other horse and they mirrored each other. That was really poignant for me because there’s nothing wrong with asking for help and, together, the horses were helping each other out. I do look back on the two horses and how important it is to get help.”

*Names have been changed to protect patient identity.

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