Horses are very much like people. They are not only acutely sensitive to emotions but also social animals that often mirror our own behaviour and relationships through their actions. As a result, horses can play an important role in healing the human psyche.
Gert van Rensburg, clinical psychologist and equine therapy facilitator at Riverview Manor, one of very few South African facilities to use equine therapy to treat many modern day maladies, including drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, anxiety, depression, trauma and stress, says that the natural social interactions of horses are often a metaphor for our lives.
“Animals have been used therapeutically for centuries – but now there’s also solid science behind it,” he says of both the increasing number of published research papers and, in particular, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) method that he helped introduce at the Underberg based Riverview Manor three years ago.
This carefully structured approach began in America in 1999 and is now regarded as the leading equine therapy model worldwide. It is practiced by more than 4 500 accredited mental health professionals and equine specialists in 50 countries.
He says the programme is run by an equine specialist and a mental health specialist. “They work as a team and are trained to look after both the horses and the clients,” he says.
The horses do not wear bridles or halters and because the human participants therefore have no control over the animals, they, instead, have to interact with them.
All is “ground based work” with no riding. Each session begins with an open discussion within the group of 10 to 12 clients. This often includes formulating a theme or a topic which will be addressed during each therapy session. Then the group enters the arena and interacts with the horses.
Van Rensburg says that the team creates a space for group members to reflect, project, and make deep connections.
Often, the behaviour of the horses allows people to address complex and potentially threatening issues such as confidence, acceptance, trust, boundaries, isolation, anxiety, impulse control and more.
They then discuss their experiences afterwards and members of the group are asked to interpret the horses’ behaviour. This incorporates both experiential and metaphorical experiences. “The client sees a metaphor and is invited to interpret the metaphor and share that with the group,” he explains.
He says that people often gain insight through observing horses’ behaviour which often triggers important and even repressed memories. They are able to externalise their problems and project them on to the horses, finding it far easier to speak about their observations as they are not actually addressing their own, often traumatic, experiences.
He says that although, initially, people were extremely sceptical about the programme, there have been a lot of positive outcomes which have led to useful insights and positive breakthroughs. “People have an ah-ha moments and see something outside themselves with which they can identify,” he says.
At Riverview, he says they have had very positive responses from clients. Whereas, in other facilities, equine therapy is a small and largely peripheral part of overall therapy, at Riverview Manor, it is now an integral part of the daily programme.
Located in Underberg, in the stunningly beautiful Southern Drakensberg, Riverview Manor has the added advantage of a peaceful country setting which is a perfect fit for equine therapy.
Riverview’s program is psychotherapeutically based and incorporates the best of traditional and modern approaches and is constantly updated to ensure its standard of excellence and to maintain its relevance in changing times.
The focus of the intensive program is on equipping clients with life skills vital to a sustained recovery. It is implemented by a specialist team that includes psychologists, an occupational therapist, spiritual counsellors, a dietician, consulting psychiatrists, a general practitioner and experienced nursing staff.
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