Patients try out horse play

2016-01-12 06:00
 Equine therapy is being piloted at Valkenberg hospital. Here are Nafisa Abdulla, chief occupational therapist at Valkenberg, Fiona Bromfield, trustee at the Equinox Trust, Dr Marc Roffey, psychiatrist at Valkenberg, Noeline Nune, occupational therap

Equine therapy is being piloted at Valkenberg hospital. Here are Nafisa Abdulla, chief occupational therapist at Valkenberg, Fiona Bromfield, trustee at the Equinox Trust, Dr Marc Roffey, psychiatrist at Valkenberg, Noeline Nune, occupational therap

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Move over, man’s best friend. There’s a new animal bringing comfort and treatment to patients, specifically individuals with mental health problems.

Equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is being piloted at Valkenberg hospital.

Six male forensic patients, mainly with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, have been selected for the pilot, says Nafisa Abdulla, chief occupational therapist at Valkenberg Hospital.

“These patients were socially withdrawn and did not engage spontaneously, they had no major cognitive deficits and some of them have a history of aggressive behaviour,” she says.

Over an eight week period, patients are able to interact with the horses and participate in therapeutic exercises via grooming or setting out obstacles, either in pairs or in groups.

“The aim of the pilot project is to improve the participants’ ability to work and function in a group, decrease irritability and aggressive behaviour, while improving interpersonal and social skills.

“Although minor, my team and I have seen distinctive improvements in the selected patients during the course of the programme,” says Abdulla.

With similar social and responsive behaviour to humans, horses have been noted to be a hugely beneficial mechanism in therapy sessions for individuals with a variety of emotional and mental health issues, says Fiona Bromfield, a trustee at the Equinox Trust.

The Trust is a registered non-governmental organisation (NGO) that specialises in EAP and equine assisted therapy (EAT).

Although there are many forms of EAT, EAP specifically focuses on the emotional and mental health of participants.

“EAP is an innovative and creative method for addressing a wide range of therapeutic and emotional needs in individuals. It is a short-term, collaborative effort between a mental health professional and a horse professional. Strategic activities are established for the participant to partake in with the horse, excluding riding,” explains Bromfield.

Although animal-assisted therapy isn’t uncommon, horses respond and react differently to other animals, she explains.

Because horses are herd and prey animals, they are highly attuned to changes in non-verbal communication in order to maintain the safety of the herd.

Horse language“Horses are able to accurately assess the state of being of an individual and communicate it non-verbally. Thus, these animals make great companions for psychotherapy, because they can mirror and instantly respond to human behaviour. There’s also a healing bond that can develop between humans and horses. EAP utilises this relationship with the horse as a tool to mirror a participant’s experiences and facilitate change and development.

“Participants are able to compare their experiences with the horses to their real-life experiences.”

Bromfield says unlike traditional talk therapy, EAP is a unique method which enables participants to learn about themselves while they interact with the horse.

The observed feelings, behaviours and patterns are discussed.

“EAP is unique in that it does not require clients to ride or get on to the horses; instead, clients are presented with semi-structured tasks, such as to catch and halter the horse, move it around and get the horse to walk through and over obstacles. It is the interpretations that participants assign to the interactions with the horses that provide vehicles for making therapeutic improvements,” she explains.

The therapist, in turn, takes the participants’ interpretations from their horse interactions and crafts metaphors, which are used during and after the therapy sessions to help participants with developing and retrieving emotional and behavioural responses.

Interpretation“This metaphorical process is self-reflective, encouraging participants to develop insight and supporting the identification and expression of thoughts, behaviour and emotions. It is the stories which emerge from these metaphors that enable our programmes to have a lasting impact and enable the client to take what he learns when interacting with these horses back to his life,” she says.

The process engages participants on a physical, mental and emotional level simultaneously, Bromfield says.

“As humans we remember 20% of what we hear, 50% of what we see and 80% of what we do; thus, our actions are the reasons experiential learning is so effective.”

The Equinox Trust team has worked with a variety of individuals, including children, families, recovering addicts, abused women and individuals looking for an alternative to traditional therapies.


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