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Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning

There is a growing body of evidence that using animals to assist in therapy and learning can have positive and lasting benefits for patients. In our blog this week, Robert Huey, Chief Veterinary Officer for Northern Ireland tells us more about equine assisted therapy and learning and what he is doing to promote people’s awareness of it.

For many of us animals are part of our lives, be that as companions, as partners in our sport or leisure activities or through farming and food production.  I am lucky in that all of these apply to me.

Many of us, by experience or instinct, understand that contact with animals can be good for our well-being.  This ‘feeling’, is supported by evidence which has led to the development of programmes utilising ‘Assistance Animals’, primarily dogs and horses, but also dolphins and many other species.  I want to raise awareness of the unique contribution that horses can play in enhancing the wellbeing of people.

Horses, and in fact equines of all sorts, are social animals and, like humans, have their own personalities. They are non-judgemental and receptive and expressive to human emotions which is demonstrated by how they respond to people’s behaviour, moving towards, or away from the person.  As a consequence they are successfully being used in therapy and for personal learning and development.

Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning (EAT&L) is delivered in Northern Ireland by organisations such as Riding for the Disabled, the British Horse Society and at the Donkey Sanctuary, to help those that can benefit from therapy, riding and driving.  More recently independent therapists and facilitators have been offering EAT&L to wider audiences through referrals, for example from local health professionals, schools, social services, support networks, rehabilitation programmes, the ‘justice system’, and others choosing to participate through personal choice.

Most EAT&L interactions tend to be non-riding interaction with the therapist or facilitator using the horse or donkey to reflect and transform the clients emotional need.  The activities used in the interactions have the potential to enable people to overcome personal hurdles, build self-esteem and develop confidence.  Being involved with equines in this kind of environment may also help participants who have specific needs develop their communications skills, improve social interaction and give a sense of general wellbeing.

While a lot of people are doing good work with EAT/L in Northern Ireland, many who could benefit don’t know it exists.  I want to help change this by ensuring that those who could benefit, and those who care for them, are aware of the benefits and the organisations involved in providing this valuable support.

To that end, I am helping facilitate a group of interested organisations and individuals in the delivery of a seminar which will showcase the benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning services. Key decision makers across central and local government and its agencies will be in attendance and I hope to raise awareness of the potential benefits and savings to the Health budget that could be associated with this novel approach.

Additionally, the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has commissioned Deloitte to undertake an analysis of the current and potential economic value of the Northern Ireland Equine Industry.  The analysis will also identify sectors with the potential for growth and development, including considering the potential for Equine Assisted activities.  Deloitte are due to report to DAERA by the end of this year.  Going forward our aim is to develop an Equine Strategy for Northern Ireland.

If you’re interested in keeping up-to-date with my work, and the wider work of the the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs you can follow us on Twitter: @ChiefVetNI and @daera_ni.

Have you heard of equine assisted therapy and learning before?  What do you think about using animals to support people’s learning and mental healthcare?  Share your thoughts in our comments section below!


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Jackie McCoy 09-Oct-2018 at 09:44 hrs

As Professor of Management Development at Ulster University Business School, I have been using Equine Assisted Learning in the context of Leadership Development for many years at the Tullynewbank Stables facility in Glenavy. Horses give in-the-moment feedback by tuning into the underlying intentions and levels of authenticity being demonstrated by the leader. Horses have no agenda, other than to feel safe in their environment, and they don't tell lies. They teach very valuable lessons to anyone wanting to develop themselves and the high performance teams on which they rely by engaging in authentic leadership practice. This is not rocket science; it's about taking the time to discovery who we are, how we want to be, what we want to with our lives (personal as well as working) and the legacy we want to leave behind when we are gone.

Equine Assisted Leadership Development is a great intervention for destressing people and workplaces; giving people the tools to challenge toxic behaviours (which sadly have become the norm in many workplaces) and promote, instead, more functional ways of working that speak to the core of human kindness and man's universal desire to be part of something great.


Esther Skelly-Smith 09-Oct-2018 at 07:26 hrs

Animal Assisted therapy is of huge benefit to patients in their recovery and in general. Equine therapy has not received enough focus and therefore I am delighted to see the PCC and DEARA engaging to highlight its value.


Beulah 07-Oct-2018 at 22:05 hrs

Great to see this being promoted. Canada is using this widely animals are so good for people and their physical and mental well being. We need a plan for ni


Samantha O'Sullivan 05-Oct-2018 at 22:05 hrs

Hi I am an OT qualified in EAT/L based in Fermanagh. It's so exciting to see the growing recognition for the huge benefits offered by EAT/L. I have been trying to reach out to local mental health agencies to offer this therapy but a lack of understanding and funding are barriers to participation.


D 05-Oct-2018 at 21:50 hrs

I have been a member of the riding for the disabled for 15 years. I have seen many children gain confidence, core strength, vocalizations and empathy as they bond with the ponies. The joy the children get during the lessons makes up for the early starts! I 100% believe in animal therapy, I have witnessed the positives.