Living with mental illness: Trying out equine assisted therapy

Mental health blogger Fiona Kennedy talks about her first experience of equine assisted therapy

I’ve written quite a lot the last couple of months about the various forms of support we’re more familiar with when it comes to mental health issues – psychotherapy, medication, psychiatry – but recently I had the chance to try something completely different. I was approached by a group in Galway called Horses Connect, who offer equine assisted therapy, and last week, I went to give it a go.

Honestly, I’m still struggling to find the right words to describe the experience.

I went along expecting a demonstration of what they do, but instead got to experience it first-hand. If you’re anything like me, even the ‘term equine assisted therapy’ seems alien, so I really had no idea what to expect. The facilitators said very little, bar giving me instructions, and my anxiety was through the roof. Was I doing it right? What must they be thinking? I’m definitely doing it wrong……..and on and on I went.

The practicalities of what happened were very simple. I was working with two tiny ponies who were to represent two strengths I have, and once we brought them into the arena, I was told to take off their head collars and let them wander freely. What followed were some simple, yet at the same time, baffling instructions.

I was asked what I wanted to achieve with the work, how I wanted to feel afterwards, and given my level of anxiety at the time, calm was the first thing that came to mind. So, I was told to use whatever was in the arena to construct a calm space. Once that was done, I was to bring the ponies into the space. Simple, right? Yes, except how on earth was I to create calm out of some jump stands and poles? And once I did, how was I going to bring the ponies into it?

This is the point of the therapy. It brought me right into the present moment. I had to work to decide what calm would look like, and then work to make it happen.

Source: Shutterstock

For me, when I’m anxious, having the space around me tidy and clutter free makes me feel more in control, so that’s what I did with the arena – I took all the jump poles and stands and stacked them nice and neatly. I was asked to reflect on that, what it meant for me. I didn’t have to talk about it, the question was a cue to get me thinking.

The next task, bringing the ponies into the space, was more challenging. How do I make two ponies do what I want, at the same time?! I resorted to the easy option – put the headcollars back on. Again, I was asked to reflect on this. Why did I choose the headcollars? How did the ponies react? What did that mean?

Next, headcollars off and let the ponies wander again, then once they were off on the far side of the arena, bring them back into the calm space, without using the headcollars.

This one really got me. Do I call them? Do I try and herd them? How do you herd ponies anyway? So I just watched them for a bit, and the pause gave me time to see what they kept going back to – the grass outside the arena, they were eating it through the fence. I’m quite proud of myself for the lightbulb moment that followed. I grabbed a couple of handfuls of grass, showed it to them, and they were more than happy to follow me back to the calm space.

And that was it. No more instruction, just spend a few minutes with the ponies, talk to them if I wanted to, just be near them.

Talking with the facilitators afterwards they told me a few things, the first being that they weren’t watching me at all, they were watching the ponies. How the ponies behave is a reflection of the person they’re with. They take note of what the ponies do, and then give feedback.

In my case, it turns out these were two rescue ponies who don’t tend to trust people, and the fact that they came with me so willingly said a lot about how I was in that moment. They also told me that they never tell clients anything about the ponies before they work them – not their name, the background, their temperament, even their sex, because all of this will create a subconscious bias in the client’s mind and influence how they interact with the ponies.

Certainly, had I known that they were rescue animals and distrustful of people I would have behaved very differently. I would have been far more anxious around them, and definitely more cautious approaching them, and I imagine this in turn would have rattled the ponies. As it was, I wanted to be able to get close to them, so I worked really hard to keep myself calm for them, which in turn meant I was calm for me too.

It was such a simple experience, and yet profoundly moving.

Source: Shutterstock

I was five minutes into the drive home when the tears started, and they were still coming a good hour later. It wasn’t sadness, I’m not sure what it was, but those ponies, one of them in particular, touched something in me that I didn’t even know was there. Maybe it was the fact that I was calm, and completely absorbed in what I was doing that gave me some freedom from my mind.

Maybe it was the quiet dignity of the ponies, and the way they chose to stay near me, then let me know very clearly that they wanted more grass. Maybe it was that I was slowed down enough to be able to see and understand this. Maybe it was simply looking into their eyes and seeing them look back. How often do we slow down enough to actually look into someone’s eyes, to really see them, and to let them see us?

Our world, our lives, move so fast. They are layers and intricacies and subtleties that we’re not even aware of in every single communication we have with each other. With animals, that’s all stripped away. They are in the moment, showing you exactly who they are. They’re not worrying about the future, or dwelling on the past, or trying to figure out what we think of them. They’re simply being. We so rarely let ourselves do that. Turns out it’s not scary at all, it’s just wonderful.

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Fiona Kennedy writes regularly about mental health issues on her blog sunnyspellsandscatteredshowers.org. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact Samaritans free any time from any phone on 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.ie to find details of your nearest branch. You can also find online information at www.yourmentalhealth.ie

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