The Effectiveness of Equine Therapy – a student nurse perspective

As someone who had never been around horses, I wondered what had prompted me to volunteer to buddy children with learning disabilities as they attended equine therapy. As I approached the centre for the first session, to say that I was anxious was an understatement. How was I supposed to support children when I was extremely nervous? Well, it was too late to back out and all I hoped was that what I was feeling was not written all over my face.

I have never been the confident kind and always rely on safety in numbers. So, as I was introduced to the equine therapists, I was anxiously looking around for my colleague who had volunteered alongside me. Having another novice like myself gave me some sort of comfort, but it was not to be as she was running late. The children promptly arrived, introductions were made, safety aspects explained and rules around horses, especially respect, established. Although it was evident the children could not wait to meet the horses, the importance of observing the horses from outside the enclosure and getting a feel of the environment was explained.

My first impression in meeting the horse and pony was just how intimidating the horse looked, but looking at the children, I knew I had to lead by example. After all, I was here to offer support, experienced or not. Children are very perceptive and as I soon learned, so are horses. The therapist explained that horses can sense and react to your energy and it was thus important to remain calm. This is further reinforced by Burgon, Gammage and Hebden (2017) who argue that horses can respond to body language and are thus beneficial in therapy. The children could name the horses and they came up with some interesting choices where surprisingly there was a consensus. The therapist explained what happens at the sessions and I must admit I was embarrassed to have thought that equine therapy would involve the children riding at some point. I realised I should have done some research. Dunlop and Tsantefski (2018) argue that animal assisted therapy involves interventions including animals in non-verbal therapy, with set goals. This was supported by the therapist who set goals for the children to invite the horses in the private spaces they had created, be it classroom, playground or dinner hall. It was fascinating to see the horses responding to the children.

Session after session, a bond was building between the children and the horses and it was evident, they were growing in confidence, as was I. Trzmiel et al (2019) suggests that Equine assisted therapy is highly effective in improving social communication, behaviours and even posture. It was thus interesting to see the different personalities emerge. From the leader who went straight to the horses, to the laid-back child who watched the others, before being encouraged to join in. I was surprised I was enjoying the sessions and was interacting well with the children, looking forward to each session.
The equine therapy sessions have enabled me to understand the importance of utilising different methods to communicate and offer interventions. From encouraging a child to talk to the horse, to sitting on the ground next to another who just wants to be left alone but knows you are there if needed. If horses can sense anxiety and nervousness, then surely too do the patients that we are charged to take care of. It has taken children and horses to make me understand the importance of building trust, as this is surely what underpins care, otherwise, just like horses and children, what will we achieve when those we are entrusted to care for do not trust us? Although I feel more needs to be done by nurses and nurse educators to promote alternative therapy, in the few sessions we had with the children, not knowing what their normal behaviour or character is in familiar territory, it is difficult to determine the exact therapeutic effect the therapy will have on the children in their normal environment. This is further supported by McNamara (2017) who suggests that the little involvement of parents/carers in equine therapy makes it difficult to fully comprehend its benefits.

REFERENCESBurgon, H., Gammage, D. and Hebden, J. (2017) ‘Hoofbeats and heartbeats: equine-assisted therapy and learning with young people with psychosocial issues-theory and practice’, Journal of Social Work Practice, Vol 32(1)Dunlop, K. and Tsantefski, M. (2018) ‘A space of safety: Children’s experience of equine- assisted group therapy’, Child and Family Social work, Vol 23, pp. 16-24McNamara, J. (2017) ‘Equine Facilitated Therapy for children and Adolescents: A Qualitative pilot study’, Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, Vol 12(4)Trzmiel, T., Purandare, B., Michalak, M., Zasadzka, E, and Pawlaczyk, M. (2019) ‘Equine assisted activities and therapies in children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review and a meta-analysis’, Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Vol 42, pp. 104-113

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