Equine assisted therapy: "The best therapy I know..."

MS Society blogger Sandy with her horse
We don’t make eye contact at first. I approach the horse slowly, lifting my arm and laying my hand gently on his neck. Despite his size, I’m not scared. He sniffs me, checking to see if I’m friend or foe. His name is Thunder – half a tonne of muscle and horsepower. And he’s also my therapist.

This all happened by sheer chance. One day I struck up a conversation with another mum at the school gates. She was always in her horsey gear and I hadn’t been on a horse in over 20 years.

I asked if she had her own horses, and she told me about her equine assisted therapy centre. We became friends and soon after Dawn invited me to meet her animals.

That day changed my life.

Treating depression

Depression can often rear its ugly head with MS. I’ve been battling it for years. And I’ve tried lots of different things to help – art therapies, talking therapies, journaling. Some suit me better than others.

Equine assisted therapy involves being with horses to help people manage anxiety, depression and PTSD. It’s also used to treat conditions like autism.

Just being around horses can raise levels of hormones like oxytocin, which is sometimes known as the love or calming hormone.

Because of this hormone hit, the therapy can help boost self-esteem and confidence, and therefore improve mental health.

Visiting the farm

I was curious about her work, so I went to the farm and met her horses. I watched sheep and lambs playing in the field, fed the goats, collected freshly laid eggs from the chicken coop and – for the first time in a long time – felt totally relaxed.

I went home feeling positive and practically floating.

The therapy isn’t about riding horses – it’s about connecting with an animal. Horses are sensitive creatures and can pick up on our body language, mirroring our emotions far more quickly than a human.

This helps a person realise what subtle signals they are sending out. Anxiety, anger, frustration and more can be ‘read’ by the horse. To build up trust and bond, we may need to alter our emotions.

Connecting with Thunder

During my first ‘proper’ therapy session I met Thunder and got to groom him. This is like saying to the horse “I care about you and I’ll look after you.”

Then, with Thunder in his head collar, we went to the field. I walked with him for a few paces, then stood still. We did this several times until our movements became like one, Thunder picking up on my subtle body language.

As we chatted, without realising I started to talk about some of my fears and how I was anxious about the future. There had been no pressure for me to talk, but it all came tumbling out. It felt like a weight had lifted from my shoulders.

Next Dawn suggested taking off his head collar. So there I am. Stood in a field with a massive lump of a horse and no means of controlling it. I walked a few paces…and he followed me.

I was teary eyed as I walked towards Dawn. I’d completely forgotten about my MS. And I’d just moved half a tonne of animal without lifting a finger.

I felt like I could do anything. And MS was not going to stop me.

The best therapy

I’m now volunteering at the centre and I can honestly say it’s been a life changing. I’m back in the saddle and cantering Thunder through the fields.

My legs flap around and I won’t win any prizes for being the best rider in the world, but being on a horse gives me such a sense of freedom.

The therapy has helped keep me positive, fit and lift the depression. If I feel low, five minutes with Thunder is the best therapy I know.

> Find out more about emotional support and MS.

About Sandy: Sandy blogs at wordsescapemeblog.wordpress.com and volunteers at freedomequine.org. When she’s not getting off a horse ungracefully she likes to spend time with family, friends and her loopy dog called Wentworth.