Can grooming and riding horses foster recovery from mental illness?
Learning to communicate and achieve harmony with a large animal promotes renewed feelings of efficacy. A motivated “I can do it!” replaces feelings of helplessness — empowering the person to take on challenges in other areas of recovery.
Horses’ sensitivity to non-verbal communication assists patients in developing greater awareness of their emotions, the non-verbal cues that they may be communicating, and the important role of non-verbal communication in relationships.
Learning to trust an animal such as a horse also aides in the development, or restoration, of trust for those whose ability to trust has been violated by difficult life experiences such as physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, neglect, or marital infidelity.
Through grooming activities and other types of care for a specific horse, patients are able to put aside the absorbing focus of their mental illness, such as depressive ruminations, and instead to direct their attention and interests outwardly toward safe and caring interactions.
Many studies of human-animal interaction indicate that contact with animals significantly reduces physiological anxiety levels. Some patients are initially afraid of horses. But horses’ genuineness and affection allay these fears, helping patients to embrace exposure therapy for their anxiety issues.
For many individuals with mental illness, there is a long-term or recent history of feeling rejected by, and different from, other people. Mental illnesses are intrinsically isolating experiences. The horse’s unconditional acceptance invites patients back into the fellowship of life.
Many patients are initially concerned that they will do something embarrassing while learning about or riding the horses. Yet patients quickly learn that the other participants are engaged in their own equine experiences, and they observe the comfort of the horses in their own skin. Fears of embarrassment in public are thereby often reduced and self-acceptance increased.
Particularly for those whose mental illness involves the experience of lost control over impulses, the need to communicate with a horse calmly and non-re-actively promotes the skills of emotional awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and impulse modulation. Research clearly indicates that animal-assisted therapy reduces patient agitation and aggressiveness and increases cooperativeness and behavioral control.
Many individuals with mental illness are socially isolated or withdrawn. A positive relationship with a horse is often a first, safe step toward practicing the social skills needed to initiate closer relationships with people.
Communicating effectively with a horse requires the rider to demonstrate assertiveness, direction, and initiative, important skills that enable the patient to express her needs and rights more effectively than in other relationships.
Many patients have experienced prior relationships as controlling or abusive. Healing takes place as patients discover that riding occurs within the context of a respectful relationship between a rider and a horse, and that, although physically powerful, each horse typically operates within the boundaries of this mutually respectful relationship.
Many persons with mental illness have been emotionally inhibited or over-controlled, and have lost some measure of spontaneity. The playful aspects of riding and team equine activities can help restore spontaneity and ability for healthy recreation and play.