Horses help keep us in balance

Equitherapy is an increasingly popular way of treating physical, mental and emotional difficulties with the help of horses.

Contact with horses can improve people’s confidence and self-esteem, calm hyper-activity, and aid relaxation. Riders with physical disabilities show improved flexibility, balance and muscle strength.

Two main disciplines come under the equitherapy umbrella – equine-facilitated psychotherapy and equine-assisted personal development. There are even people who practise, and teach, equi-yoga.

Hippotherapy is a separate activity, focusing on physical exercise and re-education.

Equitherapy is not officially recognised as a profession in France, but there is an equine-assisted therapy federation (FENTAC), and a national equitherapy society (the SFE).

Therapeutic work with horses doesn’t have to involve riding, says FENTAC co-president Brigitte Martin. “It can happen during grooming, or with the horse on a long rein. The horse acts as a mediator between the therapist and the patient.”

Martin works with children who are autistic and blind or deaf, and facilitates their contact with a pony. “The child becomes less agitated, and more settled, more relaxed.”

Equitherapy improves people’s posture and general way of being, says SFE co-founder Josée-Laura Delacoux. “You see people opening up, smiling more. Horses are very sensitive. They pick up on emotions, without being judgmental, and this allows people to express themselves.”

One of the pioneers in equitherapy is Linda Kohanov, who runs the Epona centre in Arizona in the US, and wrote the book The Tao of Equus.

“Horses mirror the feelings people try to hide”, she says. “They teach relationship skills, and have an incredible ability to help you become empowered. There’s no hidden agenda. When you show a positive improvement, the horse immediately gives you positive feedback.”

Physical therapy with horses started in Europe, Kohanov says. “Once it came to the US, the mental health aspect – helping people with psychological challenges, and teaching advanced human development skills like leadership, creativity, intuition and non-verbal communication – really took off.”

With horses, people need to be centred, and congruent in the messages they send, Kohanov says. “They learn how to motivate others without dominating or micro-managing them.”

The Epona centre runs equine-facilitated psychotherapy programmes, teaches therapists how to incorporate horses into their work, and specializes in Equine Facilitated Human Development (EFHD).

“EFHD is not psychotherapy, and isn’t appropriate for those with active mental health issues,” Kohanov says. “It’s for people seeking a greater sense of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual balance. My emphasis is to teach people life skills, to help them move from a survival-oriented mentality to a thriving mentality.”

There is little if any riding in the EFHD workshops. It is usually only introduced in advanced sessions.

Claire Morin, from the French association Cheval Contact, says the riding experience is not essential, but is very important. “People’s lives can be transformed by interaction with a horse. They see how they communicate with others, and what they need to change in themselves. They learn how to say no, and set limits, but in a natural way, without a power struggle.”

Morin says she is a facilitator, not a therapist. “There is an intuitive communication that occurs between horses and humans. The horse brings people into the here and now.”

Therapeutic riding can release old emotional blocks, says the association’s co-founder Jacques Charandak. “Once these blockages are gone, the person’s life opens up as well.”

The horse is a very powerful symbol, says Vincent Folatre, from the association Archipel Cheval Confiance in Brittany. “And it has a soothing rhythm that is like being rocked in the womb, or in a mother’s arms.

Folatre works with groups and individuals, and runs seminars that involve meditation and dream analysis. He also offers one-on-one therapy during a five-day stay out in the wilds. “The person is immersed in nature. They may be suffering from stress, or anxiety, or have family problems, or just want a pleasurable experience. Whatever the situation, the horse helps them reach a deep level of release and understanding.

“The contact happens on many different levels – physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual.”

Therapeutic horse riding began in France in the 1970s, and has been used to help mentally handicapped people since the 1980s.

“It was used firstly by physiotherapists, then to help children with social or family difficulties or behavioural problems, and even personality disorders,” says Yves Rivet, who founded a riding school where mentally handicapped people work as grooms, and assist the instructors.

“These were children who refused to adhere to society’s rules. When you ride a horse you need to accept the animal’s rules, and transgressing those rules can be very unpleasant.”

Rivet tells of an autistic child who would lie down on the horse’s neck, and cling to its mane. “One day he hid his face in the mane, and, in floods of tears, shouted for his mother. At a subconscious level, the horses’ mane had reminded him of his mother and her long, black hair. From that day, his autism disappeared.”

The handicapped workers at the Marouillet stables are treated as normal people by those learning to ride, Rivet says, so they develop a more positive vision of themselves.

Equitherapy has been used to treat drug addiction and eating disorders, and even to help prisoners reintegrate into society.

The therapeutic value of horse riding was written about in antiquity, and, during the First World War, horses were used to rehabilitate wounded soldiers in England.

“It’s no accident that so many of the world’s great leaders were skilful riders,” says Linda Kohanov. “Horses invigorate your spirit and help you get in touch with the real beauty and power of life.”

© Annette Gartland