By Paull Khan
Festival was a horse brave enough to conquer the obstacles and emerge victorious in the fearsome Velka Pardubicka steeplechase. Peopleton Brook was so hardy, he contested 93 races for Grand National-winning jockey-turned-trainer, Brendan Powell, winning nine of them and being placed a further 17 times. What do these hardened racehorses have in common? They have both given valuable service in the young, fascinating and increasingly widespread endeavour of Equine Assisted Activities such as Hippotherapy.
Owners, as well as the public at large, would appear to be ever more concerned with what should become of their racehorses once they have retired from the track. And these activities, which are held to bring profound benefits to people in many different circumstances, could increasingly provide an answer – and one as rewarding for the erstwhile owner as for the clients or patients with which their horse interacts.
What, exactly, are ‘Equine Assisted Activities (EAAs)’? Look, and you will find a myriad of similar terms in use: Equine Facilitated Learning, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, Therapeutic Riding…the list goes on. Each defined differently – and sometimes conflictingly – by different authors: the hallmark, of course, of an emerging and youthful field.
Hippotherapy, despite the breadth of its literal meaning – ‘treatment with the horse’ – has come to refer to a very specific strand of EAA. In Hippotherapy, the treatment involves the horse being ridden. The Oxford English Living Dictionary defines the term thus: The use of horse riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment, especially as a means of improving coordination, balance, and strength. The predominant focus is on those with physical disabilities, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, etc..
But many manifestations of EAA are geared primarily to helping with non-physical issues and these typically involve little or no riding. Interaction with the horse can take many forms, including handling, grooming and lungeing. So, too, the methodologies employed. Some are one-to-one and focus on personal issues; most are group-based and look at more general concepts, such as trust, assertiveness, self-confidence and self-esteem. Many involve trained professionals such as psychotherapists.
But all are based on the core belief that, for many reasons which the Counselling Directory sets out well, the horse is especially suited to this type of work. Its very size can initially be daunting, so, for many, to overcome this and establish a relationship of trust and control is a profound achievement. As a prey animal, it is quick to interpret body language and to mirror behaviour, responding positively to a calm, confident approach. As a herd animal, it will frequently want to be led and to create bonds – the bonds between man and horse can be exceptionally powerful.
And the range of claimed benefits and beneficiaries is broad indeed. Prisoners, ex-servicemen and -women with PTSD, those on the autistic spectrum, children with ADHD, those deemed ‘at risk’, schizophrenics and those exhibiting a number of other behavioural and psychiatric disorders.
What is striking is that programmes of one sort or another are going on in many, many countries across Europe and beyond. In Prague, for example, the Czech State Psychiatric Hospital boasts a hippotherapy department called BOHNICE. Milan’s principal Hospital has had a hippotherapy unit for over 30 years.
On occasion, there is some involvement of the racing industry. For example, the Moroccan racing authority, SOREC (Société Royale d'Encouragement du Cheval) co-founded a hippotherapy programme aimed at people with special needs. In Scandinavia, betting companies, through the Swedish-Norwegian Foundation for Equine Research to which they contribute, funded a study of the efficacy of Equine-Assisted Therapy on patients with substance abuse patients.
A most impressive example of racing involvement is from Turkey. Here, Equine-Assisted Therapy Centres can be found, courtesy of the Turkish Jockey Club, at their seven racetracks, each offering entirely free courses to children with physical disabilities or mental and emotional disorders. To date, over 3,500 children have benefitted from the scheme, described as ‘one of the most important social responsibility projects of the Jockey Club of Turkey’.
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