Horses Help People Become 'The Best Versions of Themselves'

Horses are helping on the healing journey for some clients of the Northland DHB’s Tumanako mental health inpatient unit.

Equine-assisted therapy is an international movement and for the clients of the Tumanako unit, the horses are assisting them to re-connect, to release anger or anxiety and find new hope.

Equine-assisted therapy is used with chosen patients at the Tumanako unit and in combination with other standardised and non-standardised assessments and therapies, such as sensory modulation, relaxation, psychoeducational groups and therapeutic activities in the kitchen, garden and art room.

For the past year, Tumanako unit occupational therapist Jeannet Penney has been taking one client a week to use the horses and arena at the Whangarei Riding for the Disabled, where she previously worked for five years.

Jeannet, an occupational therapist since 1990, has also been trained and certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), an international association for professionals incorporating horses to address mental health and personal development needs.

Equine-assisted therapy is ground-based and does not involve any riding. Instead, clients enter an arena with two or three selected horses and are encouraged to get to know them.

“It’s about the connection between human and horse,” says Jeannet. “I don’t have an agenda but stand back and let them walk up and get to know the horses in their own time, and allow the person to experience what’s happening.”

It works, Jeannet says, because horses are highly emotionally intelligent animals. “Their motive is to find or create balance and comfort for survival, and they will do what needs to be done to help this person gain or regain balance.

“I watch people be the best versions of themselves,” is her summary of what happens when the clients come into contact with horses.

“People that sit on the ward may be depressed, not engaging, feeling like they are in a deep dark tunnel. As soon as they come into the arena with the horses, their emotions come to the forefront and they learn to connect, to trust, to release anxiety or anger and to find new hope. They come alive again.”

“Very quickly a client realises how gentle and non-judgemental they are and starts building trust, respect, connection with a gentle horse. They appreciate the warmth, the smell, the touch and it’s a great way for them to learn mindful breathing, which is effective in reducing anxiety.

“A lot of the clients are lonely and have no friends – social contact is one of the first things that goes when people experience mental health issues. Then all of a sudden they make friends with this big creature that loves them and trusts them.”

Jeannet says subconscious issues can be brought to light. “Often they will be drawn to working with a particular horse that helps them learn about themselves, to gain an awareness.”

“It’s really effective with people from traumatic backgrounds, such as abuse, neglect, sexual abuse.”

Jeannet is there, observing and asking carefully-crafted questions to help clients reflect on how their experience with the horse translates to their own life and their issues and goals – “how do they cope, do they face their fears or do they run from their fears?”

Metaphorical learning helps people gain insight and awareness about their own lives. Some clients who face addictions may work with the horse to learn and practice assertiveness and boundary-setting.

Equipment such as cones, noodles, hoops and poles are also provided and clients set these up as representations of obstacles they want to overcome in life or new goals they want to set.

“Clients might have one session, or three or four,” says Jeannet. “It’s brief intervention because it’s so powerful – because it’s a sensory experience it sticks, compared to talking therapy.”

Jeannet Penney at Whangarei Riding for the Disabled

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