From Riding for the Disabled to Pets As Therapy, it is widely acknowledged that building relationships with animals can help ill and disabled people. A rehabilitation centre in Devon is taking this concept a stage further by using horses as part of a holistic approach to treating addictions and traumas.

“The work is all about relationships,” says Don Lavender, a psychotherapist who has been running the equine-assisted psychotherapy sessions at Harmony for the past year.

“Horses are hyper-vigilant and can detect human emotions, such as fear, through signals such as breathing, heart rate, perspiration and the release of pheromones. If a person is standing next to a horse and is afraid the horse will pick up on this and think there is something for him to fear as well. In this way horses can mirror human’s emotions.”

Don uses a variety of “congruent message-sending exercises” with the individuals who attend the centre. The principle of these exercises is clear communication as unless the participant’s thought, emotional intent and body language act together the horse will not do what the participant wants, whether that is lifting a foot, being led, or walking, trotting and cantering on the lunge or loose.

“Another exercise that people always want to do again and again I call ‘join-up’,” continues Don. “The idea is to get the horse to engage and walk with you, but really it’s about getting the human engaged to the self. Horses engage with other creatures who are engaged with the self.

“The relationship with the self is the most important part of equine-assisted psychotherapy and those who have undergone trauma, abuse or chemical addiction are generally distanced from the self. Through horses they learn to exercise connection with the self.”

Don has been involved in equine-assisted psychotherapy since 1990 when he worked at a centre in Arizona with Barbara Rector, who has established programmes around America helping children with physical, mental and emotional problems.

Barbara designed a programme involving horses for adolescents with chemical abuse addictions and the centre’s psychotherapists noticed a significant improvement in the adolescents and became more involved in the programme.

“As far as I’m aware that was the start of equine-assisted psychotherapy,” says Don. “But there are a lot of different equine programmes and this kind of work probably has its origins in 16th century Spain.”

Don stresses that any horse which can see, hear and move about can be used for this type of work as the horses are not trained, and over 99% of the work is from the ground. He has generally found geldings easier to work with, as they are more docile.

Harmony currently uses three horses aged from eight to 13 years; a thoroughbred mare who stands just over 15hh, a 17.1hh retired hunter gelding and a shire who is reputed to be the largest of his breed in Britain at 19.1hh.

“A lot of people come to us with very little horse experience and that doesn’t matter because you don’t need horsemanship skills, you need the skill to connect emotionally with the self,” sums up Don. “The horse is a diagnostic tool which we use to find out what’s not working for that person in relationships.”

For more information, visit Harmony Devon’s website http://www.harmonyrehab.com/