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How Equine Assisted Therapy can help damaged and vulnerable people....

Sun 27th Mar 2016

Mike Delaney at work
Mike Delaney at work
Mike Delaney at work
Mike Delaney at work

I have alway believed that animals are therapeutic and can help people who experience anxiety, depression and a host of other problems.  I sometimes bring my gentle cat into the counselling room as I find that it helps to relax some clients, enabling them to open up and discuss their problems more easily.

At some stage in the future, I may offer Equine Assisted Therapy as I believe that horses have a very positive effect on people suffering any kind of mental health problems - from feeling low, depression, anxiety, bereavement to name just a few.

Some time back I did some training with one of the UK's top Equine Assisted practitioners in the UK - Mike Delaney. 

Mike has become a friend and I asked him if he would write a piece for me talking about his work.  Here he writes about a project he was involved with where he worked with young people who had been sexually traumatised and had then gone on to sexually abuse people themselves.

On his way back from a retreat in Morocco he found some time to put pen to paper. I hope you will find what he says interesting - I found it inspiring and am full of admiration for what he achieved on this project.

I am sitting on a flight to Marrakesh, heading for a well-deserved, week-long Breathwork Training Retreat in a beautiful hotel in the old part of the city.

Eileen asked me a long time ago to guest blog for her and I have always had the best intentions but just “never got round to it” so I suddenly thought, “what better time than now, siting on a flight doing nothing!” so here we go.

On my return next week I am a guest speaker at a London Conference on Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy for professional therapists and I will be presenting the results of a piece of work we carried out at Leap – the equine assisted therapy centre, a few years ago with young people. As it is fresh in my mind I thought it would be interesting to do a short summary of the work for interested readers.

It was in 2011 in Gloucestershire and where Sam Quinlan, the founder of LEAP (Equine Assisted Training Programme) had successfully won Children in Need funding for a one-year project to work with young people who had been sexually traumatised themselves and who had gone on to become sexually harmful to others.

When Ella Bloomfield, my Leap colleague and myself were initially approached to facilitate the work we were both indignant that we did not want to work with this client group. I hadn’t worked with kids for many years and was determined that I wasn’t going to put myself through the stress and challenge of managing this complex group. I was eventually convinced that it would be worth it for the experience and potential research that could come of it so both Ella and I agreed.

We approached various children’s services around the Gloucestershire, Bristol area such as Youth Crime Prevention Teams, Youth Offending Teams, Special Schools and residential projects for children who had been removed from families and who were placed on Court Ordered care.

We targeted specific youth workers to be “champions” of the project in order that we had staff support and after many meetings and weeks of assessment and risk management, we had finally identified 40 kids and placed them in 8 groups of five, who would each receive eight half-day sessions at Leap. We planned it so that Ella and myself worked all day every Friday with separate groups in the mornings and afternoons.

Due to the immediate nature of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, we had a loose framework/plan for each session, centred around a specific theme which we were hoping to measure such as Self-Esteem, Communication, Empathy and Resilience.

The project taught me a great deal about making assumptions and pre-judging as I was preparing myself to be sworn at, verbally abused and generally have a very difficult time. How very wrong I was!

Instead I met some of the most frightened and traumatised souls I had ever encountered. Young children as young as 8yrs who had been forced into sexual activity by family members and who had developed a range of trauma responses such as dissociation and an absolutely distorted view of what love is.

I developed strong and trusting bonds with many of these children and quickly realized that, like most humans, they just wanted to be safe and to feel loved but due to the nature of their “offences” they had been separated from family systems, placed in residential or foster care and been subjected to oppressive rules such as “no touching” staff or other children, which I found to be alien and, in my opinion, more likely to further “sexualize” the forbidden  behaviour.

Each group arrived for their first session with apprehension and suspicion, wary of trusting professionals and almost ready for the project to fail. They had come to believe the low expectations placed upon them.

The day always started with an informal get together over a drink and some biscuits where the kids would tell us about their week. (After we had convinced them to stop calling us names such as “Sir” or “Miss” they began using our first names and there began the trust that was to build).

Following this we would go down to the field and prepare for entry to our sacred space, the yurt (a very friendly wigwam space). We insisted on this space being for work and in order for them to understand this and remember, we always held a “smudging ceremony” before entry with the clear understanding that after entry to the yurt, talking and “playing” were not appropriate. We were astounded by how well they adhered to this and how high the standard of behaviour was in the yurt. We also introduced a Native American talking stick so that there was some order to the conversation. Again this was a very successful tool.

As each group progressed with their course we were bowled over by the level of change, trust, openness, empathy and engagement. They were breaking all the professional descriptions of their symptomatology by openly working as a group, supporting each other, directly helping each other and being so sensitive to the needs of the horses. “He looks sad”, “she looks lonely” etc.

We saw them problem-solve as a group, show the most amazing understanding of empathy for the horses, show care, concern and love for them, but most of all, for each other, their families and carers. Every week Ella and I were approached by family members, staff and social workers asking exactly what we were doing as they were seeing change in the children, often more change than they had ever seen prior to the sessions.

In one group of girls we had a complex young lady who was in residential care for her own safety as, after a lifetime of abuse, she had learned to use sexual favours as a way to manipulate and get what she needed from men. She attended every week without fail and engaged fully with the horses and it wasn’t until after her group ended that we were told she had absconded from care in week 2 and, unbeknown to the residential staff, she had came out of hiding every week to attend her equine sessions.  Now how is that for commitment!

It was a hugely successful piece of work and at the end of the project, out of 43 children who would not engage in any traditional education or therapeutic intervention, only one said that he didn’t want to come back!

For myself (and I believe, Ella too) it was one of the most rewarding pieces of work I have ever done. It taught me so much about not judging a book by it’s cover, about not believing everything that you read in someone’s case file, and about absolutely trusting the amazing power that horses hold to change human behaviour.