Innovative therapy unites psychiatric patients with horses

Horses at Surehaven Glasgow that are used for the Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
Horses at Surehaven Glasgow that are used for the Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

An innovative psychiatric therapy that uses horses to help patients learn about themselves, their relationships and how they interact with others has been introduced at a secure hospital in Glasgow.


The Equine Assisted Psychotherapy service is being provided for patients by Surehaven Glasgow, a 21-bed secure hospital which provides treatment programmes for people with mental illnesses.


Consultant clinical psychologist, Dr Marie-Louise Holmes, and learning and leadership expert Ms Hannah Turrell, who have lifelong experience with horses, identified that equine therapy would benefit patients in secure psychiatric care.


They are now both qualified equine assisted psychotherapists and are already witnessing the positive changes this radical therapy is having on their patients.


Dr Holmes said: “Many of our patients have severe trauma histories and find it very difficult to trust others. It can feel safer to connect and explore issues of trust with the horses and these experiences can form the vital first step to eventually rebuilding trust with people.


“Horses are also uniquely suited to this type of work. Firstly, due to their size and strength, some patients can find them intimidating and the challenge this presents requires a creative way of thinking that helps them reconsider the way they act – something they can apply to life in general.


“By connecting with the horses, it can help boost patient’s self-confidence and self-esteem. It also means they are less intimidated when struggling with a life issue that seems bigger than they are.”


The use of animals within therapy is nothing new because they have the ability to read human emotion, and nowhere is this better seen than in working with horses. The technique dates back as far as ancient Greece, but became popular in Germany, Austria and Switzerland alongside physiotherapy as recent as the 1950s.


Equine Assisted Psychotherapy can be used to help treat all manner of mental health problems, including addiction, anxiety, anger, low self-confidence and trauma.


Dr Holmes added: “Over the past few decades this specialist treatment has become well-recognised for its ability to foster change in a patient by promoting emotional growth and learning.


“Horses are prey animals that live in herds and develop strong bonds with whoever leads them and therefore are ideal for this type of therapy.


“They can read body language, respond instantly and have an ability to mirror the thoughts and behaviours of others. So, if a patient appears negative and defensive, the chances are the horse will not want to interact either. But it will respond more positively to someone who is calm and confident.”


The series of sessions typically only involves the patient, therapist and a horse specialist. There is never any riding involved and participants don’t necessarily have to even touch the horse.


Instead, being in their presence and leading them around obstacles or in a certain direction often without a lead rope can help patients to use those experiences when understanding their own lives and how they can resolve mental health difficulties.


Dr Holmes said: “We are proud to provide such an innovative method of treatment at Surehaven, which is helping to boost self-esteem and confidence in those who need it the most.”


Surehaven Glasgow is run and operated by Shaw healthcare, one of the UK’s leading health and social care providers. Shaw healthcare provides care to individuals in nursing and residential homes, hospitals, supported living arrangements, extra care schemes and domiciliary care settings.


Its services range from comprehensive care packages through to low level support in the community for older people and adults with physical, sensory or mental health support needs.



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