Freedom Equine offers the following core services:
- Equine-Assisted Learning services for a range of ages and needs – we specialise in working with horses, ponies and other livestock to facilitate education and learning amongst excluded groups and those with special educational needs.
- Development of riding / horsemanship / animal husbandry and farming skills.
- Equine Therapy services for a range of ages and needs – we specialise in facilitating the development of social skills and communication through interaction with horses, ponies and other livestock.
- Specialist educational services for children and young people at risk of exclusion from school or college, or not in education, employment or training, (NEET).
- Outreach services for other ‘at risk groups’ including vulnerable women and those who have experienced abuse.
The article below was written by one of our Equine Assisted Therapists, Aviva Stafford, and gives a good insight into the outcomes of Equine Assisted Therapy.
Equine Assisted Learning and Therapy
Equine-assisted learning (EAL) is an experience-based learning process, the purpose of which is to improve cognitive function (including social and emotional development) via interaction with horses with the aim that principles learned in the session will carry-over and be applied in everyday living.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is often similar to EAL but with a focus on an ultimately therapeutic value instead of a learning one, although often these values emerge hand-in-hand. EAL/EAP can include ridden work but often involves setting ground activities with horses which will require the individual or group to apply certain skills. Non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking and problem-solving, leadership, empathy, taking responsibility, teamwork, relationships and confidence are several examples of traits that are developed through these sessions.
EAL/EAP is becoming an increasingly popular choice for children or adolescent youth with additional needs due to its capacity for restorative social-emotional practice and development of healthier, more mature psycho-social skills. Over time, this restorative practice literally allows the brain to remodel neural pathways of arousal, emotion and meaning, broadening the learner’s perception of the world around them and their window of tolerance for emotion and capacity to form healthy relationships.
Acceptance ~ Attention ~ Empathy ~ Emotional Bonding ~ Mutual Trust ~ Nonverbal Communication Skills ~ Patience ~ Respect ~ Self-awareness ~ Self-control ~ Self-esteem ~ Speech-language Skills ~ Well-being
Horses can help a huge variety of people. EAL/EAP has been known to help people with conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), a variety of learning disabilities including ASD (autism spectrum disorder), sufferers of anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance misuse. EAL is also becoming a popular method of corporate team development because of its effectiveness at improving self- and social-awareness and communication skills.
Role of the Facilitator / Therapist
The equine assisted learning facilitator/therapist is there to do just that: facilitate learning and/or provide therapy. They will tailor sessions for each individual and set up safe scenarios from which they believe the learner will benefit from the most. They will give the learner as much support and input as they need to work alongside the horses without taking away from what the horses themselves give the learner through non-biased, authentic feedback. The facilitator/therapist will help the learner reflect on various scenarios from the session and turn it into constructive feedback that they can apply to aspects of day to day life. They are there to enable the learner.
What Happens in the Brain?
To understand how horses help change us from the inside out, it’s helpful to know a little about what goes on in the brain. The brain is an incredible organism which has the ability to change its own structure in order to enhance its function – a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. The restructuring of emotional response is most affected by experiences because neurons are designed to change in response to activity. These experiences engage the limbic (emotional) region of the brain. The neurons in the limbic region develop new connections with each other and the more the person undergoes the same experience, the stronger those connections become.
Take trauma for example; how does it cause a disorder in the first place?
‘Our brain and nervous system were designed to ensure survival by functioning as a ‘RESPONSE/MEMORY/PREDICTION’ system, but trauma can set this complex and adaptive system on a semi-permanent false alarm… a brain that exists in a perpetual state of fear. In a child victim of abuse, for instance, these trauma-induced alterations have made their stress response oversensitive, overreactive and dysfunctional due to over-utilisation of primitive reactions such as dissociation and hypervigilance. These primitive reactions become entrenched over time and maladaptive preconscious memories function as a general template for that child’s feelings, thoughts and actions.’ (Bruce Perry, 2008)
Chaotic experiences during the sensitive stage of child development create in turn chaotic, dysfunctional neural organisation that persists into adulthood. The good news is that, thanks to neuroplasticity, therapeutic activities such as EAL/EAP can put a positive spin on neural pathways meaning this need not be a permanent condition.
So Why Horses?
EAL/EAP is mostly based on experiential learning involving working with a highly emotionally-receptive creature, which is why it is such an effective method of personal development. Such sophisticated emotional work requires a trusting relationship in which the learner can sense their partner’s feelings too, but in the case of people who have a deep-rooted distrust of other people, this can present a barrier. That’s where horses come in.
Horses are social animals for whom attuning to each other’s emotional states is key to survival. They can attune to a human’s emotional state almost immediately and far more accurately than humans can.
Working with these incredibly emotionally-intelligent creatures, who make no presuppositions, gives the learner authentic and unbiased feedback about themselves. By learning to understand and acknowledge the horse’s sensitive reactions to their own signals, the learner allows changes take place in their limbic (emotional) region, increasing their self-awareness and setting patterns for healthier emotional regulation in the future.
Horses come with different personalities like people. One aspect of social awareness is attuning to different personalities. Working with different horses sharpens this awareness. For example, horse #1 is shy and you must be particularly gentle in the way you communicate with him, but horse #2 is confident and you have to set clear boundaries and exert more pressure in what you’re asking for… even though you might be asking both horses to do the exact same thing. Overly confident people might struggle with horse #1 and nervous people may struggle with horse #2, but that’s all part of the learning process. The learner can discover how to ‘read the horse’ and relate to him accordingly and then take those principles and apply them to relating to people.
There have also been many cases of people with depression or anxiety benefiting hugely from working with horses, experiencing emotional regulation (just being around horses can raise levels of oxytocin – the ‘bonding’ hormone – in the bloodstream) within a real, working partnership. The process of developing this bond with the horse and the feeling of acceptance which accompanies it not only boost confidence and self-esteem, but also helps the learner to develop the tools for self-regulation that they can then apply to normal day-to-day life.
The concepts of EAL/EAP are becoming more and more widely accepted although there are still some mixed views. One down-side is that it is inevitably expensive, and another is that many people struggle to see the science behind why it is so effective and so, understandably, are not prepared to invest precious time, money and energy into it. But the good news is, its extremely positive results are now beginning to become more widely-recognised and it is growing in popularity.
I personally love the concept of equine-assisted learning as a form of therapy because I adore horses, but it’s so much more than that too… stepping outdoors, breathing in the fresh air, enjoying the natural surroundings, living in every single moment, taking responsibility for a half-tonne animal, connecting emotionally with that animal and working with it to achieve goals you never thought you could achieve, realising that you can do so much more than you thought and having fun in the process. It’s being accepted for who you are and coming away feeling empowered, inspired and enabled.
- Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential – and Endangered, Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz
- The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment, Babette Rothschild
- Perry, Bruce and Hambrick, Erin (2008) The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, Reclaiming Children and Youth, Volume 17, No 3. http://www.childtrauma.org/index.php/articles/cta-neurosequential-model
- The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, Bruce Perry and Erin Hambrick
- The Listening Heart, Leigh Shambo