Equine Assisted Therapy And Learning

5th October 2018

Equine Assisted Therapy And Learning

There is a growing body of evidence that using animals to assist in therapy and learning can have positive and lasting benefits for patients. In our blog this week, Robert Huey, Chief Veterinary Officer for Northern Ireland tells us more about equine assisted therapy and learning and what he is doing to promote people’s awareness of it.

For many of us animals are part of our lives, be that as companions, as partners in our sport or leisure activities or through farming and food production.  I am lucky in that all of these apply to me.

Many of us, by experience or instinct, understand that contact with animals can be good for our well-being.  This ‘feeling’, is supported by evidence which has led to the development of programmes utilising ‘Assistance Animals’, primarily dogs and horses, but also dolphins and many other species.  I want to raise awareness of the unique contribution that horses can play in enhancing the wellbeing of people.

Horses, and in fact equines of all sorts, are social animals and, like humans, have their own personalities. They are non-judgemental and receptive and expressive to human emotions which is demonstrated by how they respond to people’s behaviour, moving towards, or away from the person.  As a consequence they are successfully being used in therapy and for personal learning and development.

Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning (EAT&L) is delivered in Northern Ireland by organisations such as Riding for the Disabled, the British Horse Society and at the Donkey Sanctuary, to help those that can benefit from therapy, riding and driving.  More recently independent therapists and facilitators have been offering EAT&L to wider audiences through referrals, for example from local health professionals, schools, social services, support networks, rehabilitation programmes, the ‘justice system’, and others choosing to participate through personal choice.

Most EAT&L interactions tend to be non-riding interaction with the therapist or facilitator using the horse or donkey to reflect and transform the clients emotional need.  The activities used in the interactions have the potential to enable people to overcome personal hurdles, build self-esteem and develop confidence.  Being involved with equines in this kind of environment may also help participants who have specific needs develop their communications skills, improve social interaction and give a sense of general wellbeing.

While a lot of people are doing good work with EAT/L in Northern Ireland, many who could benefit don’t know it exists.  I want to help change this by ensuring that those who could benefit, and those who care for them, are aware of the benefits and the organisations involved in providing this valuable support.

To that end, I am helping facilitate a group of interested organisations and individuals in the delivery of a seminar which will showcase the benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning services. Key decision makers across central and local government and its agencies will be in attendance and I hope to raise awareness of the potential benefits and savings to the Health budget that could be associated with this novel approach.

Additionally, the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has commissioned Deloitte to undertake an analysis of the current and potential economic value of the Northern Ireland Equine Industry.  The analysis will also identify sectors with the potential for growth and development, including considering the potential for Equine Assisted activities.  Deloitte are due to report to DAERA by the end of this year.  Going forward our aim is to develop an Equine Strategy for Northern Ireland.

If you’re interested in keeping up-to-date with my work, and the wider work of the the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs you can follow us on Twitter: @ChiefVetNI and @daera_ni.

Have you heard of equine assisted therapy and learning before?  What do you think about using animals to support people’s learning and mental healthcare?  Share your thoughts in our comments section below!