People often think anxiety is being worried or stressed out about something, like a relationship, a test at school, job performance or a life change. They think there is a specific cause of worry, and fixing the situation will fix the anxiety. This isn’t typically the case.
Anxiety can inhibit one’s ability to speak or think clearly. It is powerful and debilitating physically and mentally. It’s unpredictable, often misunderstood and can manifest itself with intense physical symptoms like chest pains, loss of vision and collapse.
Along with these debilitating experiences, a sense of powerlessness and critical self-judgement is common. There can be a loop of thinking that is difficult to interrupt. A person can feel trapped under the weight of their thoughts and feelings.
According to British Columbia’s online resource Here to Help, “Anxiety is a normal and healthy response to problems or difficult situations—everyone feels anxious at times. Anxiety can be a problem when it comes up often, seems to come up for no reason, or becomes difficult to control. This can make it hard for people to go about their lives.”
Despite the challenges of dealing with anxiety, the good news is that anxiety is treatable in a variety of ways such as counselling, medication, support groups and self-help.
Equine-assisted programs are an option that makes a difference for many people who are struggling with anxiety.
According to The Anxiety Treatment Centre in Sacramento, CA, “Equine therapy can help the individual build confidence, self-efficiency, communication, trust, perspective, social skills, impulse control, and learn boundaries.”
History of Horses Helping People
Horses have been used to help people since the time of ancient Greek literature. The therapeutic value of horses was documented in 600 B.C. by Orbasis of ancient Lydia. Equine therapy was introduced in Scandinavia after an outbreak of polio in 1946. In 1960, the United States and Canada saw the introduction of therapeutic riding.
Although a variety of animals may be used to help people, horses have become one of the most popular because they give immediate feedback and have the ability to mirror the feelings of the participant. A horse’s large and intimidating size can have a profound effect on a participant as they learn to trust, communicate and interact with these powerful animals.
The Method of Equine-Assisted Learning
Equine-assisted learning involves more than just riding a horse. It is a powerful and effective approach to experiential learning that includes one or more horses, and that is designed to have a positive impact on individuals of all ages.
Typically, the coach leading the session will provide exercises for the client to complete, such as choosing, grooming, leading the horse to a designated area, putting a halter on or even riding a horse. For children, it may include play and story-telling. The client will complete the task to the best of their ability. After the activity, participants then process or discuss their feelings and behaviours associated with the session with the coach.
The discussion component of the session can serve to develop language and listening skills, following directions, asking questions and for help, and discovering insights not otherwise available. Communication occurs between the participant and the coach, as well as between the participant and the horse.
This approach to learning is particularly helpful for those who are struggling with anxiety as they are often consumed by worry about the past, or catastrophic thinking about the future. Equine involved activity encourages a person to be present and focused on the task at hand.
Mental and Emotional Impact
Horses sense danger and respond with heightened awareness of their surroundings. Their natural response is to flee if the situation seems dangerous.
People dealing with anxiety may be able to explore this through observation and discussion with their coach. Focusing on the apprehension of the horse can reduce the individual’s anxious response, allowing them to remain calm and productive in their thoughts.
A person dealing with anxiety will tend to avoid activities that are challenging or outside of their comfort zone. In a considered and thoughtful approach, the coach will provide challenges and then assist the participant as needed, talking through the thoughts or feeling that are stimulated by these activities. For example, longeing, grooming, and feeding the horse are all activities that involve coordination, planning and active communication.
People struggling with anxiety may begin to avoid chores or other responsibilities that were typical in their daily life previously. However, the more they avoid, the more they feel anxious by thinking about returning to those activities.
Developing and following a schedule to interact with a horse can provide a sense of responsibility and flexibility because the physical needs of the horse and the situation can change. The participant has to move their attention from their anxious thoughts to the activities, fostering the feelings of being more competent and responsible.
Play and Storytelling
The equine instincts of play, curiosity, freedom and social drive can be identified by people as similar characteristics to their own. Play allows for creative thinking, setting limits and animated relationships.
Storytelling encourages coming up with ideas about what the animal is thinking and feeling. This is a great tool for encouraging the development of language skills and creativity. It can help an individual express themselves as a third-party observer which may feel safer.
Equine-assisted learning is often used for team-building, supporting families or for groups because horses also show interpersonal behaviour. As a goal-oriented activity, equine-assisted learning allows the group to work together to achieve a common goal.
How Horses are Unique
Non-Judgmental and Unbiased
Horses are not biased by the client’s physical appearance or past mistakes. They react only to the person’s behaviour and emotions in the moment. People describe this as being essential to the process and helps increase self-esteem and self-confidence.
Feedback and mirroring
Because horses are hyper-vigilant and sensitive as prey and herd animals, resulting in their keen observation skills, their feedback is provided earlier and more consistently than with a human. The horse’s innate tendency to mirror the client’s behaviour, physical movements and emotions, helps the participant with self-awareness. The client “feels felt”. This feedback can then be translated by the equine-assisted learning coach and discussed by the participant or within the group.
A Metaphor for Real Life
The horse is powerful when used as a metaphor for other issues, and helps make the session applicable to real-life situations. For example, a child was struggling to explain how she was feeling about her father moving out of the family home. She was able to explain how a horse might feel if its herd mate was sold and moved away, and she gave suggestions for how it could cope with the new situation.
Using the horse as a metaphor for her own loss allowed the child to better understand and cope with her new family structure.
Seeking Equine-Assisted Learning
When searching for a program, be sure to do some research and find a program, coach and facility you are comfortable with. Feel free to ask questions, visit the facility prior to booking your sessions and confirm method of payment. Although some benefits providers cover EAL, it is up to the beneficiary to establish this in advance.
As you choose a program, you may want to consider finding out more about the following:
- Experience and certification of the coaches
- Location and accessibility of facility
- Herd management
- Safe handling practices
- Health and cleanliness
- Number and suitability of equine partners available
- Cost of programs
- Variety of programs to suit your needs
- Privacy as needed
To find out more about the programs offered through Emerge Equine, visit our website at http://www.emerge-equine.com
The Anxiety Treatment Centre; http://anxietytreatmentexperts.com/equine-assisted-therapy/
Alberta Health Services; https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/resource-library