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Equine and Animal Assisted Therapy

“Trails of Discovery” Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT)
A personal account

MalekaandI“Where did it all start? Anthropologists believe that first horse-human interaction dates back to 1500 BC (Hallberg 08). Since then horses were used as beasts of burden, as means of transport, they carried us through wars and died for causes irrelevant to them, they won and lost in competitions created by us and apart from that, they galloped through dreams of many a young girl.

Close bonds and natural connection between horse and human existed in nomadic cultures such as the Mongols, Arabs, American Indians and Gypsies. It is from this bond, that a new understanding emerged; an understanding of the horse’s ability to help heal an injured soul.

EAT formally emerged in the western culture in form of Hipportherapy (riding for the disabled) after the 1954 Olympics where a paralysed competitor won the silver medal in dressage. (Hallberg 08). When horses proved beneficial in Hipportherapy, other options such as using horses for emotional development, motivation, learning, personal growth in therapeutic settings were explored.

EAT at Phoenix House started as an idea in 2005 and was first realized in 2006. This was preceded by a rather turbulent path I embarked on by purchasing a horse. To describe our mutual journey would take a whole book, but let’s just say that my initial expectations of training “Rain” became gradually smaller and smaller, until I needed a high powered microscope to find their pitiful remnants. What grew was Self-doubt, Self-loathing, Anxiety, Fear and Frustration. Of course, Rain responded accordingly: as soon as I and my mates (Anxiety et al) entered the paddock, she was out of there. Needless to say that my little circle of friends soon expanded. Who joined us was Self-pity and Hopelessness.

I had two choices: one – to bow out gracefully, sell Rain, and accept my failure; or two – change directions from a path that wasn’t obviously working and approach the whole thing differently. The first option didn’t really resonate, so I chose option number two – and never looked back. I shall refrain from naming all the virtues and qualities, Rain trained into me. Nevertheless, I see the same strengths and skills growing and blossoming in the over 200 clients who accessed EAT groups since 2006, many of them returning as participants, some as mentors, volunteers and others starting carriers, two of them in the equestrian world.

Our little team expanded from Rain to Maleka and Baby (three mares) to Milo who with his patience, unconditional love and gentle nature taught many children not to fear horses. He taught young members of a generation where immediate gratification is a must, that good things take time to happen and that pain and discomfort sometimes need to be waited out and they too will diminish. Sadly, our beautiful Milo passed away not too long after retiring from EAT.

What evidence is there that EAT actually works ? To date research indicates positive outcomes of EAT with clients with : eating disorders, drug and alcohol dependence, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, eg. War veterans. Till recently, there was very limited research into the benefits of EAT and survivors of Sexual Abuse. We are pleased to say that Phoenix House together with CQU have completed empirical research into benefits of EAT with survivors of Sexual Abuse from groups of children, adolescents and adults and the results are significant.

Despite challenges such as time limitations, transport and distance to premises, condition of premises after last flooding etc, we carry on with our work.



T.N., adult participant in EAT groups

 “ Maleka”

InlovewithMaliHaving a history of sexual abuse I was put in contact with Phoenix House and commenced therapy with one of the counselors there “the lovely Helena”. Part of this therapy included Equine Assisted Therapy.

I sat back and watched one by one other members of the group enter the enclosure and interact with one horse in particular. I could feel myself getting angrier by the minute but I couldn’t understand where this anger was coming from.

It was my turn to enter the ring. I walked in and fear engulfed me. I turned around and walked straight back out without giving Maleka a chance. A chance to WHAT? Why was I so afraid? I wasn’t afraid of horses. I’d owned and ridden them many times in my life.

Helena offered to go back with me. She stood back to one side and suggested I walk around and just give Maleka space. As I did this, Maleka started to follow me! Here was this beautiful horse – wanting to interact with me! She was accepting me, just as I was, with all my faults, fears and insecurities. I felt bad for not having given her a chance initially and had walked away from her. I stopped and reached up to stroke her neck as a way of saying ‘Thank You’. Maleka bent down to put her head over my shoulder as though she was giving me a hug. I broke down and sobbed into her neck as she continued to show her compassion and I knew then my fear was actually a fear of REJECTION.

I was able to contemplate this later and look at how in my human interactions I walk away, not giving others a chance or allow my anger/fear to govern these relationships that could prove to be nurturing to both of us. I am indebted to Maleka and the other horses for life lessons they have taught me, and Helena, you are a treasure in a field!”

S.L., a young adult who participated in Trails of Discovery groups since her childhood 



RainSleeping“When I went to equine the first time, I was angry, nervous and scared. But when you get in the arena, it’s not just about you. It’s about the horse, about you and everyone else in the group.
I remember when I had to get Rain around and obstacle and she wouldn’t go. So I thought, maybe I should show her. I started circling that drum until I was dizzy. And then Rain followed. She taught me determination and how to focus on solutions.
Maleka taught me to talk about my feelings in the safety of the group. She also taught me to be aware of other people’s feelings. I can see them in their faces, in their eyes, in their body language and I learned to respect them.
To me being with horses is having the freedom to be me. I often take the things I learned in the arena into my real life.
Now I am happy and calm and I know life will be good. Maleka helped me through half of my troubles. And she will still help me more. That’s why I am going back to EAT.

SG, an adult who participated in Trails of Discovery



Baby1It all became clear to me when I walked the Obstacle Course with “Baby”. One of the cones, represented the most pressing, the most un-surmountable obstacle at that time. But when we approached that particular cone, “Baby” stopped, picked up the cone with her teeth, flicked it to the side, and walked past without as much as looking back. No one in the group knew, that the obstacle represented my fear of driving over thousand kilometers in a not so new car, to visit my child. There were many challenges and many reasons why I should not go.

But “Baby” just chucking that obstacle aside, got me inspired. I planned my journey, took precautions, took breaks and faced my fears. In the end all worked out well. I had a great time with my child and made it there and back without a hiccup. “Baby”, in her flamboyant, spirited way, showed me how to get courage and for that I thank her.