Image of ripples on water.

Horses and humans have a long history of working together. The idea of using horses in physical therapy can be traced back to ancient Greece; various ancient texts refer to the life-affirming relationship between humans and equines, and this is now being applied in the area of mental health.

Actuality Counselling offers Equine-assisted Therapy (EAT) as one of its services. This involves working experientially with horses and can help to develop people's awareness and learning. It may be used as a complete therapeutic approach in its own right or may comprise one element of the work you do with your counsellor, coach or supervisor. EAT has helped people to address depression, anger, bereavement, lack of motivation, self-confidence and a wide range of other issues. It has also been used to develop teamworking and to tackle other work-related issues.

Image of equine-assisted therapy session.

Working with horses can be fun but it is serious fun. The experiential nature of EAT means that we relate to, and respond to, the horses in the here-and-now and learn from our experience. By reflecting on what happens in a session (observing the horses, describing what they are doing and how we perceive them, and expressing how we feel in relation to them), we can gain insight and understanding into ourselves, our behaviour, our relationships and our environment, and can develop a clearer sense of who we are.

Image of equine-assisted therapy session.

A recent study conducted at Sussex University identified 17 discrete facial movements in horses (three more than chimpanzees) which may give us insight into their emotional states. The study - which has catalogued eye, lip, nostril, chin and other movements - may begin to answer complex questions about the social, cognitive and physical characteristics of horses. It suggests that horses, with their complex and fluid social systems, also have an extensive range of facial movements and share many of these with humans and other animals.

"... never sacrifice what you could be for what you are. You should never give up the better that resides within for the security you already have"

Professor Jordan B. Peterson (2018)

Horses seem to have an ability to bypass the intellect and connect directly with our emotions. Through their size, sensitivity and spontaneity, they present us with powerful challenges and opportunities. They are social animals with personalities of their own: much of their behaviour has evolved to keep family groups together during seasonal migration in search of changing food sources and to warn of possible predator attack. They are large and powerful, and can be intimidating; they respond to our level of authenticity; and they are sensitive to non-verbal communication and aspects of our behaviour of which we may be unaware. The effect of all this can be to encourage us to release the masks which we often use in our daily lives and to become more aware of ourselves.

ARTICLE: Not Just Horsing Around

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

The Guardian

Read the full article.

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"By reflecting on what happens in an equine-assisted therapy session, we can gain insight and understanding into ourselves and our behaviour."

Image of equine-assisted therapy session.

EAT is completely ground-based and does not involve any riding. Your therapist will consider your safety at all times but, equally, will want to ensure that all activities are spontaneous and that you are not unnecessarily restricted in what you do. EAT involves performing tasks with, and around, horses. However, the main objective is not the completion of the tasks: the focus is on the process of attempting each task, and what you feel and become aware of while you are doing it.

"I believe that much of what we consider to be mental illness is really just thoughts, feelings and actions that do not promote productivity or participation as workers in our society; that resentment is caused by wanting to be loved unconditionally but possessing only tools to gain love conditionally; that acting out or becoming mentally 'disordered' is really a message in a bottle, placed there by a person who hopes someone will see it and save/love him or her; that psychiatry and psychology are fantastic for diagnosing and treating the myriad symptoms and manifestations (messages in bottles) of resentment - mostly by covering them with Band-Aids (pharmaceuticals that mask the negative emotions). But the root problems often remain untreated, and ultimately the Band-Aid falls off."

Ira Israel (2017)

Image of Steve Manning with horse.

Working with the team, gives you an opportunity to reflect on your behaviour, your fears and your sense of self. Metaphors are often used to describe what you are experiencing, what the horses are doing and how you perceive them. This can be revealing: what emerges may well be fed back into the session, thus enabling you to explore your world and the issues you face in it.

The video below illustrates how Equine-assisted Therapy has been used to help people suffering with addictions.