Equine Therapy – Local Council Takes a Walk on the Wild Side
Hampshire County Council’s Substance Misuse Team brings Equine Assisted Recovery into the mainstream.
Susie Little, Equine Assisted Learning Practitioner, explains how this innovative programme came into being…
In the Spring of 2012 Hampshire County Council’s Substance Misuse Team (SMT) was approached with the offer of an equine assisted recovery pilot programme for its service users. To the Team’s credit, they were willing to think outside the box and give equine assisted recovery a chance. Well over two years down the line, the programme is now an integral element of the Council’s package of measures in support of addicts and alcoholics in early recovery in the community.
Today, the benefits of equine therapy are widely accepted. In particular, in the United States, where equine therapy has been routinely offered at most treatment centres for many years, there is a growing body of evidence to prove its efficacy. However, Hampshire County Council (HCC) is the first local authority in the UK to incorporate equine assisted recovery into its own programme. This reveals a remarkably enlightened approach from the SMT in its treatment of its service users.
Debbie Hastings, SMT Lead, said: “Equine assisted recovery has made a significant contribution to the success of our community rehab package. The feedback from service users is that it is completely different from anything else they have tried and in the vast majority of cases has been successful in helping them to achieve their goal of abstinence. We have also used it for people who have come out of rehab to help consolidate what they have learnt and for others as part of a pre-rehab pathway to assist with starting to identify their emotions and feelings. This has led to shorter rehab placements, which has a positive benefit on resources in terms of cost effectiveness.
“I believe this form of equine intervention is highly innovative and extremely powerful.”
A US clinical trial* confirmed the benefits of equine therapy, which, when combined with traditional forms of treatment, showed reductions in psychological distress and enhancements in psychological wellbeing, immediately following treatment, and significantly at 6 month follow up.
(*The Effectiveness of Equine-Assisted Experiential Therapy: Results of Open Clinical Trial: Klontz, Bradly, Bivens, Leinart. Society and Animals Volume 15, Number 3, 2007)
This is borne out by the results of the Hampshire programme. During the course of six or more weekly sessions, small groups of service users work on building self-awareness and confidence through facilitated activities with the horses. Gaining subtle insights into their own behaviour and learning techniques for making positive changes in a relaxed, healthy outdoor environment are the keys to the success of equine assisted recovery. Since the inception of the programme, of the service users who completed, over 80% have remained abstinent and report continued feelings of wellbeing even after sessions have ended.
Sarah is a typical example of the programme’s success. Sarah completed the basic six week course, followed by a further six weeks, culminating in an “apt” Award (a nationally recognised awarding body) in “Developing Personal Confidence & Self-Awareness”.
Sarah tells her story: “The changes in my life since I was referred by the Substance Misuse Team almost a year ago have been amazing. I trained and started working as a peer mentor at my local alcohol and drug advisory centre in February of this year. I help to facilitate groups for people suffering with substance misuse and speak to people during our drop-in/open access times. I have gained so much in my confidence and the belief that I do have the ability to achieve what I want. I now have a plan for what I want out of my life.
I am about to start NVQ level 3 in health and social care. After my NVQ, I plan to return to college to complete a 4-year counselling course with an aim to work with people in recovery from substance misuse.
Completing the equine therapy, I believe, played a large part in me reaching where I am today. When I went into recovery I had very little confidence and self-esteem. I learned so much from the horses about how my own emotions can impact on people around me. I am genuinely happy with the direction my life is headed. I know what I want and I have the confidence to go out and get it. I have the tools and knowledge to know how to break these goals down and to take it one step at a time.
I also learnt from the horses that things don’t always go to plan. That’s OK though because I’ve learned I can adjust. I am more able to control my anxieties. I can stay calm and look at things clearly to get some perspective and deal with the situation. My family have all seen a massive change in me and it’s a wonderful feeling to be proud and to feel that my family are also proud of me.”
Horses are unique in their ability to attune to the human’s inner state. Their survival as a species is one of nature’s success stories, and a tribute to their ability to respond instantly and accurately to the information they pick up from our emotions, energy and body language. As prey animals with a highly developed limbic system, horses are extremely sensitive to any emotional incongruence they detect in humans, which might threaten their survival. At the same time, they are empathetic and accepting of our more vulnerable emotions, those which do not manifest themselves as predatory, threatening behaviour, such as sadness or grief. Horses operate from a high level of emotional intelligence and can reflect a human’s emotional state back to them in a gentle, non-judgemental way.
Even a visiting psychologist, during a “taster” session for professionals, was astonished by her own reaction, commenting: “I feel as if I’ve truly been seen for the first time.” This is why the inclusion of equine assisted work into a treatment programme has such value in “opening people up”, helping them to gain the confidence and insight to enable them to access and work through their emotions. The experiential nature of equine assisted recovery encourages parallels to everyday life, and lends itself to acquiring transferable skills, such as setting boundaries, improving communications, handling stress or dealing with potentially confrontational situations. Its inclusion as part of HCC’s larger package of measures also has the advantage of ensuring that service users are supported pre- and post-sessions, by professionals within the Substance Misuse Team.
Not only Hampshire service users have benefited from equine assisted work. The SMT members themselves experienced the rewards of a Team development day with the horses, building trust and identifying team and individual strengths and challenges. These insights will form the basis of an action plan for the Team’s future development. Said Debbie Hastings: “It was wonderful to experience the same interaction with the horses that our service users find so beneficial. Not only that, the strengths and challenges we identified that day will form the basis of our thinking for how we move forward as a Team, for the benefit of our service users. An added bonus was that some of the quieter members of the Team gained the confidence to be more vocal, which has had a positive impact on all of us.”