Horse therapy 180Equine-assisted psychotherapy can help people with mental ill health to develop an understanding of their condition and the issues that may have triggered it, as Crispin Andrews explains:

Kika Mirylees first realised that she was on to something when she invited a friend and her 13-year-old son over to try out an activity she’d set up with one of her horses.

Former Eastenders and Bad Girls actress Mirylees had ridden horses since she was a child and trained them since her early 20s – long before she played Albert Square’s Hazel Hobbs and Julie Johnson, one of Larkhall prison’s ‘Two Julies’.

Mirylees had heard that working with horses could help people with mental health problems and wanted to get involved. But first she needed to see how well equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) actually worked.

The woman and her son weren’t getting on well. Not with each other, or with their own lives. The woman had depression; the boy was angry, sometimes violent. His father was not around, and two years earlier he’d moved out to live with his grandparents.

Both wanted to live together, but couldn’t go a day without rowing. “Problem was, the boy felt his mother dominated him and didn’t respect him as having an opinion worth recognising,” Mirylees says. “The woman just thought she was parenting and protecting her son.”

Mirylees thought that working with a horse might help mum and son become more aware of what was going on in their relationship and in their own individual lives. “I put the two of them in the middle of the field with a horse and told mum to try and get the horse back to the stable in one direction and the son to get it back in the opposite direction,” she says.

She didn’t tell one what she’d told the other, though, and in this activity the two weren’t allowed to speak to each other. “They had to communicate through gesture and expression,” Mirylees says.

As Mirylees watched, mum and son got increasingly irritated. Each tried to carry out their instruction to the exasperation of the other. “One would get the horse to move one way, the other would step in and do the opposite,” she says. The horse, bewildered, eventually gave up and stayed put.

“They soon realised that they needed to communicate better and consider what the other needed,” Mirylees says. This mirrored real life. At home, both had been too wrapped up in their own thoughts and feelings. An hour with a horse had shown them that they needed to co-operate, not fight.

Mirylees was impressed with the results. Not long afterwards, she started working as a horse handler for Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic. The former Arsenal and England footballer suffered from alcoholism and drug addiction during his playing career. In 2000, he set up the clinic in Liphook, Hampshire, to help current and former sportsmen and women with their own addictions. The clinic’s counsellors wanted to try out EAP and Mirylees happened to live just down the road, had horses, a paddock, and after the session with her friend, the inclination to help. Twelve years on, she’s still doing it – in between acting gigs.

Therapeutic value of horses
As far back as 600BC, people thought that riding a horse was therapeutic. In more modern times, EAP gained popularity in the 1960s and it has steadily grown since. People don’t ride the horses during modern EAP sessions, though. The client leads the horse round the field, back to the stable and tries to get the horse to co-operate through a series of simple tasks. The horse handler, in this case, Mirylees, helps the client with the horse. A counsellor or psychotherapist talks with the client about the feelings this evokes, the strategies they might use and those the client actually uses.

Mirylees explains that whether the client succeeds or fails depends solely on whether they can get the horse to co-operate. Sometimes the client is blindfolded so the horse has to lead. Does the person trust enough to let go? Will the horse get the person to their destination?

Psychotherapist Tony Sabey runs the EAP sessions with Mirylees and organises the follow-up counselling. He explains that addictions and disorders are people’s adaptations to internal stresses and that working with the horses can calm the person down enough so they can start to address the underlying reasons for their problems. “You start to get an increased awareness of what it’s all about,” he says.

Mirylees adds that although people are not always aware of their emotional or psychological baggage horses, for certain, will pick it up. “Horses are sensitive animals, prey animals in the wild,” she says. “If a horse picks up the slightest sign of fear or anxiety, anything that it associates with aggression, it won’t co-operate.

“The horse can pick up body language, emotions, even fast breathing, so being around the horse helps a person become aware of and manage their emotional and mental state.”

Almost everyone with mental health issues also has relationship problems, according to Sabey. These problems go back to an early relationship from childhood, usually with their mother. “Working with horses introduces an experience that challenges those relationship issues,” he says.

Relating to the horse
Sabey explains that people usually want to relate to the horse and engage with it. “Initially, this tends to involve some form of rejection and this triggers the coping mechanisms that people carry around them,” he says. “The person won’t necessarily know they’re doing it, the response can be hidden and covert, but when the horse pulls away, the person will access some distraction or avoidance strategy, the same pattern they use when faced with a similar situation in real life.”

Mirylees remembers one particular client – a little bloke with a big mouth and anger management issues – who discovered after working with his horse that he also had a lot of kindness and determination, hidden beneath his Rottweiler exterior. Then there was the big Liverpudlian who overcame his trust issues, finding within himself an inner desire to nurture and be accepted. There was also a 20-year-old with depression, who spoke about his relationship with his father for the first time after becoming frustrated when his horse ignored him. This, the youngster later told his counsellor, was exactly what his dad had always done.

“It all came out, how his father had never thought him worth anything,” Mirylees recalls. “First time he’d told anyone. It was the root of his alcohol addiction. Working with the horse had brought it to the surface.”

Sabey explains that the relationship with the horse, a wholly reactive animal, allows the client to see how they themselves contribute to the situations around them, whether that’s feeling empty, inauthentic, rejected.

How they project onto other people, without realising it. “People have their own agendas in how they respond to you, a horse will just respond,” he says. “We talk about a window of tolerance. That’s how much a person can tolerate before they react in a way that they think ‘deals’ with the situation in front of them by placating, avoiding, getting angry or through some other response.”

Sabey adds that the window of tolerance is usually smaller in people with mental health issues. “People respond and create situations that don’t need to be created. Working with the horses, they develop internal qualities of resistance that they might not realise they have – qualities that can help them with their own problems.”

He believes that once a person has become more aware of their responses and learns to control them and overcome their internal difficulties, the horse will respond more positively. “You go through your sadness and anger and become more centred,” he says.

Mirylees adds: “Once you actually get the horse to the paddock, or it gets you there, you realise that you can do it. You’ve let go of control and still succeeded. It’s quite a moment. You start to look at things differently. You’ve given yourself a chance to step back and take stock, and you’ve succeeded.”

About the author: Crispin Andrews is a freelance journalist