By Emma Hutchison, co-founder of HorseBack UK
A common mental health problem is acute anxiety. Worry lives in the future; it feeds off the disaster scenarios of what might happen. To connect with a horse and reassure a horse, you need to anchor yourself in the present moment. As you do this, you can’t start running those familiar catastrophes in your head: you are here, now, with this living creature in front of you, with your feet planted in the good earth.
As you practise being still with a horse, your brain will build itself a new neural pathway. This helps to make bringing your mind back to the present easier and easier. It becomes a mental habit, and you then have that resource available to you. You have a new tool in your toolbox.
Horses are amazing creatures. They are sensitive and communicative and can help us create new emotional responses. In fact, there are many ways that working with horses can help humans with their mental health.
Dealing with emotions
Working horses well also teaches you about being aware of emotions. Horses are prey animals, so they have evolved over millions of years to sense emotion and intention from half a league away. If you bring unresolved anger or frustration or fear to the field, the horses feel it like they feel a storm coming. So, we have to learn to be aware of our emotions, to give them a name, and to process them.
Doing this can lead to the wonderful realisation that some emotions are useful and others aren’t. Working with horses helps us to recognise which emotions are useful and which are not.
For example, anger is never useful with a horse; a furious human will result in a nervous and defensive horse. If you want to connect with a horse, you have to let the anger go. Anger has no place in that relationship. Again, this becomes a mental habit, and the more you practice, the more you can acknowledge negative or painful emotions, look at them for what they are, and release them. Then you are back with your horse in a positive space.
Horses adore stillness. Humans who work well with horses become very conscious of their own bodies; the body language, the way the body feels, how they hold themselves. The horse sees all this and reads it, as if it were a billboard in Piccadilly Circus – which is why awareness of your body and aiming for a position of stillness and calm is so important. Again, practicing this helps to create the habit and makes it easier to draw on this stillness when needed.
Since the mind and the body are closely connected, learning to be aware of your body can provide considerable help when dealing with troubles in the mind. A lot of difficult emotions get stuck in the body; tension in the shoulder, fear in the stomach, anxiety pressing on the head. Before working with a horse, take a body audit, and make sure everything is relaxed, so that positive energy can move through your body and transmit itself to the horse. This is beneficial for both horse and human and means we (both) start in the right state.
The basic foundation of working with horses is awareness. If you learn to be aware of your mind and the stories it is telling you, your emotions and what they are saying, and your body and how it is reacting to those stories and feelings, then you’ve got a head start in working well with a horse – and looking after your own mental health.
At HorseBack, we support veterans by helping them develop a toolbox of techniques to keep them mentally healthy – and horses are the catalyst and the feedback mechanism. We’ve witnessed so many people make breakthroughs when they connect with a horse. They feel intensely moved, or calmed, or even consoled. They build a sense of love and responsibility to the horse, and this sets up a beautiful virtuous circle. The human’s mind settles, so the horse’s mind settles too, and then they go on together.
And perhaps most importantly, as this connection is made, the veterans know that they are not alone. They’ve got a precious partnership with this kind, strong, sentient creature. They are in it together. One of the most debilitating symptoms of mental health struggles is an acute feeling of isolation. When we put our veterans with our horses, those veterans are no longer isolated; they have a partner and they have a purpose, and this makes all the difference.
Working with horses can bring so many benefits – even just a short session with a horse and a trained facilitator can create significant breakthroughs. And regular contact can help support people through their mental health recovery and help keep them healthy – even when life delivers something unexpected or challenging.The Mental Health Benefits of Working With Horses Click To Tweet
About the Author
Emma Hutchison is co-founder of HorseBack UK, a multi-award-winning Scottish charity (registration number SC040765) based near Aboyne, in the Scottish Highlands. HorseBack UK works to improve health and well-being by inspiring recovery, positive change and renewed purpose amongst those who need it most and improving education and employment prospects for those who are disadvantaged or marginalised.
Using horsemanship, equine assisted learning, rural skills and the outdoors the charity delivers award-winning projects and personal development programmes that encourage participants to acquire new coping strategies, life skills and lasting resilience whilst gaining nationally recognised awards and qualifications.