In The Saddle: How horses can offer healing ‘hands’

Anita Marsh
Anita Marsh

There is such a strong emotional bond between horse and rider that it’s no wonder horses are fast becoming recognised by the medical profession as therapeutic, offering what could be argued as both emotional and physical benefits to the rider.

But I don’t think it stops at riding. I firmly believe that just being around horses – be it grooming or bathing them – really helps to reduce the stresses of everyday life. Horses are simple creatures really. They cannot lie. They only offer the truth of how they feel. I love that.

They don’t worry over the day they’ve had. If they are scared, they will show you. It’s all about reading body language. But I do believe they are equally able to read ours and, in some cases, adapt to us – especially around children, the disabled or people with learning disabilities.

Take for example, April, my mare. With her previous two owners, she had never been around children. When I went to try her out, I obviously didn’t take my then two-year-old little girl, so we really had no idea about how she would be with little people.

You’ll have no doubt heard of the saying ‘stroppy mare’ when referring to people, well that was probably founded on my horse. She has her little temper tantrums.

However, around my daughter, she is a different horse. I’m sure she knows to be careful. I just love their unique bond. If I’m bathing April, she’s always good, but she’ll move about and sometimes faff. Yet when my daughter comes to ‘help’ she will happily stand and doze while her feet and legs are soaped into a bubbly lather. It’s like she knows. She adapts.

I invited my friend over with her four children to help bath April recently. She just stood there, she never moved a muscle whilst ten little hands soaped her down, occasionally flicking water on each other, screaming and giggling. One of the children suffers from autism, but around April we could clearly see the therapeutic benefits of horses working first hand.

A wonderful book I have just finished reading was a true story called ‘The Horse Boy’ (and I believe has since become a documentary) which tells the plight of a young autistic American boy, whose parents discover the only thing that helps him is horse riding. The boy becomes calm, his communication improves and he is visibly relaxed.

When I met Ann Jones, the treasurer of Riding for the Disabled Association at its Rossington branch last year, she told me the simple beauty about horses is their ability to make everyone equal because, once you are on them, it doesn’t matter if you are able-bodied or disabled.

She told me many doctors believe the rider’s body responds to the warmth of the horse, which in turn helps them to become more relaxed and supple through their core body, helping disabled riders to improve balance and co-ordination.

Scientific research remains thin on the ground and horses as therapy remains mostly anecdotal. But do I believe that horses can give both emotional and physical benefits to the rider? Yes, I do think that horses can offer healing.