Equine Therapy piloted at Valkenberg Hospital | Western Cape Government


Equine Therapy piloted at Valkenberg Hospital

13 January 2016

With similar social and responsive behaviour to humans, horses have been noted to be a hugely beneficial mechanism used in therapy sessions for individuals with a variety of emotional and mental health issues. 

This is according to Fiona Bromfield, Trustee at The Equinox Trust, a registered non-governmental organisation (NGO) that specialises in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT), who says that although there are many forms of Equine Assisted Therapy; EAP specifically focuses on the emotional and mental health of participants. 

“EAP is an innovative and creative method for addressing a wide range of therapeutic and emotional needs in individuals. It is a short-term, collaborative effort between a mental health professional and a horse professional. Strategic activities are established for the participant to partake in with the horse, excluding riding,” explains Bromfield.

Although animal assisted therapy isn’t uncommon, horses respond and react differently to other animals. She explains that because horses are herd and prey animals, they are highly attuned to changes in non-verbal communication in order to maintain the safety of the herd. 

“Horses are able to accurately assess the state of being of an individual and communicate it non-verbally. Thus, these animals make great companions for psychotherapy, because they can mirror and instantly respond to human behaviour.  There's also a healing bond that can develop between humans and horses. EAP utilises this relationship with the horse as a tool to mirror a participant’s experiences and facilitate change and development. Participants are able to compare their experiences and activities with the horses to their real-life experiences.

Established in 2014, The Equinox Trust uses the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) model, which specifically addresses mental health and human development needs and follows their code of ethics. 

Bromfield states that unlike traditional ‘talk’ therapy, EAP is a unique method which enables participants to learn about themselves while they interact with the horse. Thereafter, the observed feelings, behaviours and patterns are discussed. The Equinox Trust is based on fundamentals of empowering people and is aimed at creating enabled mind-sets, which aids people to make useful decisions despite the existence of restraining circumstances.

“EAP is unique in that it does not require clients to ride or get on to the horses; instead, clients are presented with semi-structured tasks, such as to catch and halter the horse, move it around, get the horse to walk through and over obstacles. It is the interpretations that participants assign to the interactions with the horses that provide vehicles for making therapeutic improvements,” explains Bromfield. 

She explains that the therapist, in turn, takes the participants’ interpretations from their horse interactions and crafts metaphors, which are used during and after the therapy sessions to assist participants with developing and retrieving emotional and behavioural responses¹. 

“This metaphorical process is self-reflective, encouraging participants to develop insight and supporting the identification and expression of thoughts, behaviours and emotions. It is the stories which emerge from these metaphors that enable our programmes to have a lasting impact and enable the client to take what they learn when interacting with these horses back to their lives,” expresses Bromfield. 

“The holistic process engages clients on a physical, mental and emotional level simultaneously. As humans we remember 20% of what we hear, 50% of what we see, and 80% of what we do; thus, our actions are the reasons experiential learning is so effective,” states Bromfield.

The Equinox Trust team have worked with a wide variety of individuals, including children, families, recovering addicts, children who are autistic, those with behavioural difficulties, or who have been abused as well as abused women and individuals seeking an alternative to traditional therapies.  

“This type of therapy is extremely versatile and can be adapted to almost any population. Some of the key benefits include development and promotion of self-esteem, confidence, and group cohesion, empathy, understanding boundaries, trust and assertiveness,” she says.

“We welcome this initiative by The Equinox Trust team who partnered with one of the psychiatric consultants and the occupational therapists working in the Forensic Unit at Valkenberg Hospital to pilot an EAP project specifically for individuals with mental health problems. Six male patients from the division were selected to participate in the 8 week EAP project, which started on 9 October and ended on 4 December 2015,” says Minister of Health, Dr Nomafrench Mbombo.

“We selected six male forensic patients, mainly with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. These patients were socially withdrawn and did not engage spontaneously, they had no major cognitive deficits and some of them having a history of aggressive behaviour,” states Nafisa Abdulla, Chief Occupational Therapist at Valkenberg Hospital. 

Therapists from Valkenberg Hospital met with The Equinox Trust team to create a specific programme for the selected patients. Over the eight week period, patients were able to interact with the horses and participate in therapeutic exercises via grooming or set out obstacles, either in pairs or in groups. 

“The aim of the pilot project was to improve the participants’ ability to work and function in a group, decrease irritability and aggressive behaviours, while improving interpersonal and social skills. Each session focused on different themes namely communication, trust, assertiveness as well as choices and consequences. Although minor, my team and I have seen distinctive improvements in the selected clients during the course of the programme,” explains Abdulla.

“Having a more hands-on therapeutic approach in this day and age seems to be proving more powerful and effective as people are more willing to engage with their issues and lower their defences around the horses,” concludes Bromfield. 


Editor notes: 
¹ Example: A participant may be given a task to catch and halter a horse, the horse may not cooperate, creating a challenge for the participant requiring him / her to find a solution. Failure or success in completing the task evokes an emotion in the participant, which is mirrored by the horse. Using metaphors the therapist reflects on how the given task is similar to a particular occurrence which may have taken place in the life of the participant. 

Media Enquiries: 

Bianca Carls
Communications Officer: General Specialists and EMS Directorate
Western Cape Government: Department of Health
Landline:   021 918 1671
Mobile:      083 644 3383
Email:        bianca.carls@westerncape.gov.za