'Equine therapy could help treat symptoms of mental illness and trauma'

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Horses are more commonly associated with sport than mental illness treatment - but psychologists believe they could have a role to play in managing symptoms of depression, anxiety and trauma.

Equine therapy is growing in popularity. Though it is not yet offered on the NHS, mental health providers have reported successful results after incorporating horses into their treatment programmes.

Mike Delaney, a psychologist and clinical director at Delamere, a therapy retreat in Cheshire, began incorporating equine therapy into his treatment programmes around 20 years ago. Across multiple sessions, a client works with a therapist to develop an emotional connection to a horse or several horses alongside talking therapy. It does not involve riding, but does involve walking alongside a horse and stroking it.

During his career, he has used horses to treat war veterans with PTSD, alcoholics and even Transport for London (TfL) staff who witnessed the 7/7 attacks. He began his career as a mental health nurse, before setting up a clinic in Gloucestershire in 2004 which became the first centre to offer equine therapy.

“People with trauma would see the horses approach them and put their head in their chest. So many patients would immediately start crying,” he told the Standard.

“These experiences can act as a bridge to talking therapy. When it comes to addiction, often people who come to rehab have lost everything - their wife, kids and a job. They don’t trust anyone. A horse can act as a bridge for them to begin to trust again.”

Mr Delaney said that horses are astute at picking up on the “energy” given off by a patient, in the form of non-verbal cues and body language.

“Horses are wired for threat. They sense fear and danger in other people. I once walked into a field with a former soldier that was quite aggressive, and a horse came charging and skidded in front of us. The man was shocked. I told him, ‘that’s because of your energy’.”

The Human Equine Interaction Register (HEIR), a register of practitioners offering equine therapy, celebrated its first anniversary in March last year. More than 50 providers have signed up, according to Horse and Hound.

Mr Delaney hopes that the therapy will become more widespread and enable patients to make breakthroughs in a traditional therapy setting, particularly with further research projects aiming to assess the benefits of equine therapy programmes.

“Once someone can trust, then they can begin to make progress in talking therapy. For people with no self-esteem or confidence, when a horse walks up and is nice to them, it creates a positive response. Sometimes, they might not have felt that in years.”