Can horses help cancer patients? Researcher intends to find out…

  • A university academic who believes horses aided her recovery from breast cancer is to study the impact of equine-assisted therapy on cancer patients.

    Dr Carly Butler, senior lecturer at Loughborough University’s school of social, political and geographical sciences, will evaluate a new Macmillan Cancer Support service launched in Derbyshire that aims to use horses to improve the emotional health of people affected by the disease.

    She plans to study the psycho-social well being of 400 people before and after they undertake four equine assisted activities and therapy (EAAT) sessions at the Spirit and Soul Equine Assisted Activity Centre in Kirk Langley.

    During the structured sessions, attendees will learn basic horsemanship and grooming skills.

    Their wellbeing — assessed through questionnaires about their quality of life, stress and self-esteem — will be compared to a control group of cancer patients who haven’t received the therapy during their recovery.

    Dr Butler was inspired to undertake the study — which has received no funding — after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012. She subsequently underwent chemotherapy, radiotherapy, a double mastectomy and surgery to remove her ovaries and fallopian tubes.

    Having grown up with horses on a farm in New Zealand, she was re-introduced to them following her diagnosis and treatment and believes they had a positive impact on her recovery.

    “Rediscovering horses went hand-in-hand with my physical and emotional recovery,” she said.

    “It started when my daughter invited me to go with her to see a potential loan horse, an ex-racehorse called Otis. I fell in love with him pretty much straight away, and while my daughter didn’t end up loaning him, I arranged to go and visit and help care for him.

    “I found that simply being around Otis brought me a great deal of calmness, and walking with him helped me to regain some physical strength. I then started riding again at a local riding school, and after a few months decided to get my own horse.”

    Horses have since become a major part of Dr Butler’s life, and she even moved to live on the yard where her horse is kept.

    “They bring me emotional peace and help me reconnect with my body, healing the aspects of myself and my life that were damaged by the cancer treatment. I am learning as much about myself as I am about them,” she said.

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    Dr Butler explained that little is currently known about how horses can help humans.

    “I believe there is a lack of services for people dealing with the psychosocial impacts of cancer and equine assisted activities are uniquely placed to be able to offer this kind of support.

    “The research is an important aspect of the project as there is a real need for more empirical studies of EAAT, particularly its use for people affected by cancer,” she said.

    The academic’s main area of research has been social interaction and she also plans to use the sessions to study how horses relate to humans and other equines using conversation analytic methodologies.

    “The conversation analytic methodologies I use to study human interaction have not really been used to explore equine communication, so I am excited to see what these methods can contribute to the field, and what application of the method might reveal about the structures of interaction across species,” she said.

    “Equine assisted activities and therapy make use of horses’ remarkable communicative abilities and interactional sensitivities and this is something I will be looking at alongside the service evaluation.”

    The Macmillan EAAT sessions were launched on 25 May and are a first for the charity.

    Sue Sanderson, Macmillan Partnership Manager for Derbyshire, said: “We know anecdotally that this type of support has real potential to improve the emotional wellbeing of people affected by cancer, so I’m delighted that Dr Butler is undertaking this research and we will do everything we can to support her.”

    • Have horses helped you, or someone you know, recover from a serious illness? Let us know by emailing hhletters@timeinc.com and your story may be published in the letters page in Horse & Hound magazine

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