What is Equine Horse Assisted Therapy

On a recent visit to Castle Craig I was invited to take part in a short session in “Equine Assisted Therapy”.  I had heard quite a lot about this unusual form of therapy but I had never actually seen it take place (even though I have passed the field where the horses live hundreds of times). This was my chance.

Like most people, I know very little about Equine Assisted Therapy but I had heard some intriguing things. Aureol Gillan, Castle Craig’s fully-trained Equine Therapist, told me about a young Glaswegian patient who gave her a list of negative points about her donkey, who he claimed was stubborn, difficult and bad tempered (“the donkey was terrified when he first came here,” explains Aureol).  

The Glaswegian subsequently admitted that he too was stubborn, difficult and bad tempered — and some connection was born with the donkey. He spent hundreds of hours with the animal and, according to Aureol, “was responsible for overcoming the donkey’s fears and bringing him into the Equine Therapy programme”. The patient gained a lot too: confidence, faith, patience and trust.

We went to the field where the donkey (now thoroughly well behaved), a Shetland pony and a huge black horse stood waiting for us.

Equine therapy is group therapy

“This isn’t about the horses,” explained Aureol when we had gathered under a tree, “it’s about you, it’s all related to recovery and the 12 steps… This is a different way of doing group therapy… It’s about learning what we need to change, about how our behaviours are effective and not so effective — and if they’re not effective then how can we learn to change them.” It all sounded very impressive but how would we achieve that in 40 minutes?

The task

Aureol then gave us a simple task: “Choose one of those horses, put a bridle and saddle on it and walk it around the field”.  But then she made it difficult by telling us to join arms and become one unit. I had to act as “the brain” and coordinate my “left brain” (the person on my left) and my “right brain” (the person on my right). I wasn’t allowed to use my arms but I had to give orders to my left side (who could use her left hand) and my right side (who could use her right hand).  They weren’t allowed to speak and I had to give them very precise instructions, like “five steps forward. Put the bridle on”.

What should have been a very easy task became a really difficult challenge. We were lucky to be able to get the bridle and saddle on the big horse, which was the most passive of them (Shetland ponies are notoriously naughty). Leading it round the field was really hard as it simply didn’t want to move (Aureol later told us “he’s lazy”), and the saddle kept falling off, but we managed to do our task.

Challenging negative patterns

Afterwards we sat under a tree (unusually for Scotland, it was a sunny day) and Aureol gave us her feedback. One of the patients had difficulty letting go of the bridle and admitted that she had problems “letting go” of things in life. The other patient knew about horses and was frustrated by the exercise. She felt we were doing it all wrong and she admitted that she tries to control things too much. I admitted that I tended to “sweep things under the carpet and ignore instructions” (as I had done with the saddle task — when it fell off I ignored it). We all agreed that these were useful insights.

I was surprised to learn that my “right side” brain (a patient called Patricia) was afraid of horses before this session started. But there was no sign of fear as she led the 1,000 kilogramme creature through the field — and one false footstep on her part could have resulted in a crushed foot.  After the exercise Patricia told us about her fear and that she was no longer afraid of horses.

Building trust

One of the main benefit of Equine Assisted Therapy is that a sense of trust can be built up. This is particularly important for addicts, most of whom have destroyed the networks of trust that exist within families. The other beneficial feature is that confidence — one of the most predictable casualties of addiction — is quickly built up (“if I can persuade a big horse to do something then maybe I’m not so useless after all.”)

Horses are never judgemental or dishonest

There is a lot of talk about being non-judgemental in recovery, and this is vital considering how sensitive to criticism most addicts are. But everyone in treatment is human and it’s hard not to sometimes slip back into our tendency to be judgemental. Animals, on the other hand, are incapable of being judgemental or dishonest (but they can be bad tempered, lazy and stubborn) and I think this is why they can play such a valuable role in treatment.

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