Horses hold a special place in many people’s hearts. They are creatures that ignite imagination, powerful beasts onto whom we project passions, longings and lust for adventure. From the real-life legends of Phar Lap or Black Caviar, to the stories of Black Beauty and The Silver Brumby, horses uniquely reflect our hopes and aspirations, pain and social conscience.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that equine therapy—therapy for humans rather than horses—is taking its place alongside other therapeutic models focusing on people’s interactions with animals and the natural world. What might surprise you, though, is that Innovative Resources’ publications are also finding a niche in this specialist field of hair, hooves and halters.
In an era when health and welfare organisations are notoriously risk-averse, Emily McVeigh’s Ballarat-based centre, Equine Learning Experiences Australia (ELEA), has been busting the trend with some remarkable results. On paper, the idea of placing vulnerable individuals in close proximity to 500kg of solid horseflesh would usually send a shudder down the spine of CEOs and program managers. But ELEA, in fact, is thriving with the support of therapists, psychologists, schools and disability services, who are seeing firsthand the life-changing outcomes of Emily’s programs.
The increasingly diverse client group that Emily works with includes young people and adults with Acquired Brain Inquiries, Autism, depression, anxiety and self-esteem issues. For many of these individuals, the visit to ELEA marks their first close encounter with horses—and their first chance to contemplate the sensitivity of another sentient being to their emotional energies.
As Emily attests, horses have evolved to be highly attuned to their surroundings. Ever alert to the presence of predators in the wild, they are equally masters at picking up on people’s mood and energy levels. Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) works by inviting people to focus on horses’ responses to their emotional self-management, so that the horse encourages and guides the development of a person’s self-awareness. From the outset, Emily has received enthusiastic feedback. ‘Our course participants were telling us that the program and the horses were helping them to build … fundamental life skills such as patience, respect, leadership, problem-solving skills [and] clear communication.’
Emily is especially interested in the use of EAL to foster clients’ right-brain activity, the side of the brain responsible for emotion and intuition. ‘Being authentic, being real. We do a lot of work on that,’ she explains. Many of the people she sees have become adept at wearing masks to hide their issues and distress. ‘Horses,’ as she points out, ‘don’t wear masks,’ and are able to play a powerful role in teaching people to reflect on their relationships with their own thoughts and emotions.
Innovative Resources’ card sets are used in a number of ways to complement equine therapy processes. In ELEA’s indoor arena, one of the activities Emily regularly facilitates is an obstacle-making exercise that finishes with discussion using the XXX (strength) cards. People are invited to construct obstacles representing the difficulties they are grappling with, using containers, witches’ hats, flags or other items that come to hand. They then guide their horse calmly around, over or through each obstacle—a task that becomes less easy if the horse senses the person’s anxiety or trepidation on approach.
One young man participating in the activity constructed three obstacles to represent his battles with depression, anxiety, and sense of disconnection from others. Two of these he successfully negotiated with his horse. But the horse stopped short on the approach to ‘depression’. Depression, the young man later acknowledged, was the issue that he found most overwhelming and hardest to confront. Emily often uses the cards afterwards to help clients to explore their feelings and where they feel the emotional responses within their bodies.
In her work with autistic children, Emily has found Innovative Resources’ Funky Fish Feelings to be particularly effective. She has also had positive feedback from participants using A Patchwork Life in her programs for women and school-aged girls. Despite the unusual context, she tends to use the cards to build conversations in much the same way as other therapists, social workers and counsellors. But Emily also brings her own creativity to bear, trying new ways to integrate the cards with her clients’ interactions with the horses.
Some ideas have worked; others, she admits, end up in the basket of good intentions. She experimented, for example, with Mates Traits on a couple of occasions after noticing that the young people she saw often struggled with friendship. Emily asked each participant to chose three cards representing qualities of friendship they could incorporate into their relationships with the horses, such as ‘playfulness’, ‘talking’, ‘encouraging’, and ‘respecting’. It all sounded fine in theory. In practice, it quickly became clear that her clients were struggling to translate the concepts into their interactions with the horses.
However, at other times, being ‘unconventional’ with the cards has yielded profound insights. In a memorable session, Emily used A Patchwork Life with a male client, though the cards themselves are designed primarily for women. The conversation that resulted alerted Emily to the man’s critical struggle with depression and suicidal feelings. He chose the ‘Boxed In’ card, and ‘Frozen’ to describe his sense of feeling trapped. He also chose the card depicting the character looking a sunrise/sunset. when Emily asked him about its significance, he said the figure was him, ‘waiting for the day I die.’ Thanks to the cards, Emily was able to identify the seriousness of his state and arrange an immediate referral to crisis counselling.
With the success of ELEA, Emily’s original group of four horses has expanded to a herd of eight, varying in size and temperament so they can be matched to the different needs of clients. They include Razzle Dazzle the Shetland, a palamino called XXX(Maddy) whom Emily affectionately describes as ‘bomb-proof’, January an allergy-free horse, and the quarter horse Mia.
The different backgrounds of the horses are significant too. Although her older horses are very reliable and steady, they have also been trained used conventional ‘power over’ methods and tend to await directions from humans. To balance this, she has since added younger horses to the herd, who are better able to work at liberty and respond to people directly.
Emily sees an ongoing role for Innovative Resources’ card sets and is keen to keep experimenting with them. Flimsy cards and hunky horses may seem an unlikely combination. But for those of her clients who struggle with naming and verbalizing feelings, the cards are just the ticket for putting emotions back into very human terms.