Equine therapy a growing trend in treating mental health issues

WATCH ABOVE: Lauri Walker, who has survived a string of abusive relationships, explains why she decided to use Equine Therapy to deal with her issues and the special connection she has with the horse Whiskey.

“I never thought I would be a victim,” says Lauri Walker tearfully. “I thought I could do it on my own, but I couldn’t. I needed help.”

Living alone on 21 acres outside Owen Sound, Ont.,Walker cherishes nothing more than having a home and being around animals. But after a string of abusive relationships, Lauri says she was left defeated.

“I wasn’t really all that interested in typical therapy again with a doctor. I thought it would be all the same, make me feel bad about everything,” says Walker. That was when someone at Victim Services, a branch of the Ontario Government, mentioned Equine Therapy.

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Equine-assisted therapy is a growing trend among those dealing with issues such as depression, PTSD, grief, substance abuse or anxiety. It has also been used in treating autism or with youth who are in and out of the criminal justice system.

“It’s a life skills program,” says Melanie Gray, owner of Melody Acres where Lauri receives her treatment, “…trying to overcome obstacles to try and move forward with the horses”.

“You can tell them anything and they’re not going to tell your secrets. They don’t judge,” says Walker, who has so far finished seven out of ten sessions with her favourite horse, Whiskey. “He understands my emotions”.

There are Equine-Assisted Learning Centres across Canada, promoting the healing power of horses. During sessions, clients perform various tasks with the horses like obstacles courses or trust exercises. Each task requires the client to work with the horse and be aware of body language. Gray calls it “telling your story,” being honest with yourself and re-claiming your life.

In her session, Walker is asked to switch horses, testing her trust and loyalty. Lauri responds with tears, clutching onto Whiskey. Losing Whiskey represents losing her home and fear of the unknown, she says. But she puts Whiskey away and gets to know Glider, another horse.

Gray says horses mirror human emotions and are naturally intuitive. She says the horse-human relationship is unique.

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There are various models for therapy, in some cases mental health professionals accompany facilitators during sessions, other sessions might involve riding or simply grooming.

Dr. Katrina Merkies studies equine behaviour at the University of Guelph. She says the herd, protective nature of horses and their naturally gentle, non-aggressive personality are attractive to humans.

“Horses are very clear on what they like and what they don’t like,” she says. Unlike other therapy animals, like dogs, horses are prey animals, subject to flight, and will react quickly to stimuli around them.

Merkies warns about attributing human emotions to horses but says the benefits of equine-assisted therapy are clear.

“Horses do have a positive impact on humans, it can’t be denied. Even just interacting with a horse, just petting a horse or just being near a horse has been shown to improve all kinds of soft skills in humans,” she says.

By the end of her session, Walker is comfortable with Glider, leaving her feeling more powerful and confident.

“Horse therapy has allowed me to look at the good things in my life and to leave the crap behind me and not be the victim,” she says.

Don’t miss an encore presentation of “Horse Therapy” this weekend


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