Riding on the beach or picking up poo: The joys of horse ownership
Research suggests that equine therapy is effective, but little is known about how horse ownership affects mental health. What specific horse-related activities benefit owners' mental well-being? To answer this question, a qualitative study was conducted with horse owners who had owned their horses for over five years as adults and had a high level of self-awareness and insight. Participants were interviewed one-on-one for 45 minutes and the dominant themes were collated. The study found that owning a horse can positively impact the mental health and well-being of women in midlife. Activities like spending time with horses or caring for them regularly can improve mental health. Interestingly, riding a horse did not have a significant effect on mental well-being. Becoming aware of rushing and judgment through horse ownership helped participants develop strategies to increase their emotional intelligence.
The research aims to identify the factors that contribute to the mental health and well-being of horse owners. The objective is to determine whether this information can be utilised to design effective brief interventions involving horses for clients who don't own horses and wish to enhance their mental health and well-being or experience healing and transformation.
It is crucial to explain the concept of Equine Therapy to those who are unfamiliar with it. It is often misunderstood as a standalone intervention or theoretical framework, but it is important to note that it involves partnering with horses in a unique way. Horses are a significant aspect of this type of therapy, as they offer a non-threatening and non-verbal environment that is unlike traditional talk therapies (Buck et. al., 2017). The horses provide an atmosphere of trust and create a space for healing and transformation that is difficult to replicate in other settings.
Through connecting with the horses, patting them, and being moved by them, clients have the opportunity to experience a profound emotional release that they may not be able to achieve through traditional talk therapies (Buck et. al., 2017; Ward et. al., 2022). While holding space with the horses, the intensity of talking is reduced, allowing clients to feel more relaxed and open to exploring their emotions (Moshe-Grodofsky & Alhuzail,2022; Symington, 2012).
Nature also plays a significant role in Equine Therapy, as it provides a powerful backdrop for emotional healing (Hatcher et al., 2019). As a therapist, I have found that the subtle aspects of owning a horse; such as looking out on a herd of horses, picking out their feet, or mucking out stables, can bring immense joy to people. Being close to horses and nature creates a positive and calming environment that is conducive to healing and emotional growth.
My overall study proposed the following questions:-
· What activities could the owners do with a horse that have a calming effect?
· What different activities does the horse owners do that give them joy?
· What parts of horse ownership are stressful?
· Do you feel you have to ride your horse? Why/why not?
· What stories do you have where horse ownership has impacted your mental health for the better?
Although the questions and objectives were included in the participant briefing information, I did not ask them. Upon reviewing the literature, I decided to make two modifications: Firstly, I asked the participants to rate their daily stress level on a scale of 1 to 10. Secondly, I invited individuals who possess a high level of self-awareness, have more than one horse, and are capable of answering these questions. The women I spoke with were in the midlife stage, rating their daily stress levels at an average of 7 out of 10.
Horse-related activities that have a calming effect on the owners.
Hatcher et al. (2019) used a measure of a Daily Stress Level (DSL) when conducting their studies, I utilised this factor with the participants and especially when asking what it was that reduced their stress. The following answers were:- Looking out the window at them, I feel a simple joy of connection and understanding, I know that they won't judge me like people and their pursuits. When working with horses, it's important to establish a routine that meets the horses' needs first. By understanding what the horse needs, owners can provide the necessary care and training to ensure the horse is comfortable and happy. This notion can be applied to therapy as well, where therapists aim to understand their clients' needs and communicate effectively to meet those needs. Horses can teach clients about the importance of setting boundaries, effective communication, and recognising one's own needs. Whilst, Novotney (2013) found that rhythmic patterns of brushing or walking with horses can aid in relaxation. For horse owners meeting their horses' needs or what their understanding of being a responsible horse owner and meeting those needs in a routine manner was relaxing.
Clarify what activities bring joy to horse owners.
Burgon et al. (2018) measured a specific set of activities for clients during equine therapy, lacking the ability for the client to choose. Owning horses brings more choice to the activities that they do, what choices brought them joy was enlightening to this research, rather than specific things like brushing, riding or groundwork, it was the opportunities for learning that stood out as factors that brought joy.
Learning about their horses more (health, body language) or learning things to do with their horses, such as liberty or groundwork, and responding to their needs better; such as noticing tension and helping them to reduce that tension. The unexpected moments of learning and insights such as letting go of goals and pressure. The moments where the horses greet them, and they instantly get that connection such as coming home and driving down the drive to be greeted by a horse with a smile (horsey lips).
Simple acts of being with horses and watching their natural states have brought insights that have improved people’s mental health (Symington, 2012). Moshe-Grodofsky & Alhuzail, (2022) describe the importance of space for reflection and insights to be gained. Because horse owners have control over their interactions with their horses, decisions about how much time they will spend and what they will do, they have this same space. One of the questions I asked the participants was about what it was like to take the time to do the interview, and how has that impacted them. Taking the time to debrief and process their feelings with another person was another factor that added to the joy of owning horses.
Which aspects of owning a horse tend to be the most stressful?
During the discussions, the focus was on various types of costs that were incurred, including monetary, time, and opportunity costs. The thought of their horses being in pain due to injury or health complications caused a sense of stress among the participants. However, they spoke positively about the lessons they learned from these experiences, either about themselves or about how they can better support their horses and identify their health issues. They also shared these learnings with others, both horses and humans.
Horse ownership brings about certain stresses which can prove beneficial, such as social interaction with other owners, joining pony clubs, receiving riding instruction, and having to manage other people's expectations of the horse experience. Reflecting on the process of letting go of external stressors and the insights gained along the way had a positive impact on the mental health of the owners.
Do you feel you have to ride your horse? Why/why not?
All participants talked about some pressure of riding their horses or the enjoyment of going on a trek or beach rides, but whilst these are what they thought that owning horses was all about, they have learnt that they are not the biggest parts that add joy in horse ownership. Competition has become more about the competition with themselves and letting go of other's expectations. Knowing that when they ride, they have to be totally focused in the moment otherwise things go wrong, so they have to be fully present and aware to truly enjoy riding their horses and if they are not in this space they choose not to ride or sometimes chose not to even be around the horses as they believe that this isn’t fair to the horse(s).
Ward et al. (2022) conducted a study that revealed that the pressure to perform or compete hindered clients from establishing a safe therapeutic relationship with their horses and therapists. Moreover, horse owners felt that conforming to the performance or competition standards set by others took away from the enjoyment of owning horses.
How has owning a horse impacted your mental health in a positive way?
Everyone talked about rushing and how the horses made them aware of rushing and that if they didn’t address their rushing, the horse's behaviour was affected for the worse if pressed. Rushing Woman Syndrome a term coined by Dr Libby Weaver (2017), where they constantly feel like they have too much to do and are always in a rush to get everything done. Weaver says this can leave them feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, despite their efforts to stay in control of their lives, even when they try to manage the smallest details, they can end up feeling out of control and unable to keep up (2017). It's a daily battle that often leaves them feeling like they're not winning (Weaver, 2017). The horses reminded them that rushing isn’t a great way to be.
Owning horses has helped many individuals better understand themselves. By being kind and gentle or introverted, the horses have given them the confidence to be who they truly are. The horses have provided them with a safe space to process their emotions, enabling them to build self-assurance. This newfound confidence permeates other aspects of their lives, particularly in their interactions with other people. They are aware that people often make judgments, but horses do not. In the horse world, there is no good or bad behaviour, only behaviour. Therefore, it's crucial not to judge horse behaviour, but to choose how to respond to it wisely. Deciding whether to support a horse in reducing their tension or not should not stem from labelling the horse as good or bad. During the discussion, participants acknowledged how labels are a source of difficulty and something they have had to wrestle with in their own minds.
During a conversation, one of the participants shared that she wasn't interested in the history of the horse. She observed that when horses are taken out from their previous environment (previous owner), their behaviour changes. Therefore, she looks for kindness and sensibility in the horse and then honours its needs. She acknowledges that it may take some time for the horse to come to her and meet her needs. She also mentioned that some new horses have taken less than a week to adapt, while some have taken three months. If a horse doesn't want to do the work that she wants from them, she finds them a new home where they can do different stuff, especially if they have become bored.
The participant believes that examining our values and honouring our needs is essential in horse ownership. The horsey world is very opinionated, and people tend to judge quickly. Some believe that you should have a horse for life, but examining this principle means that they might understand that the horse doesn't want to be owned by them, and it would be better for the horse to be owned by someone else. The participant emphasised the importance of holding boundaries around one's needs and being aware of whether or not our beliefs serve us or the horse.
For me, this reminds me of the work of Marshall Rosenberg and Non-Violent Communication; where he talks about jackal language and how we make judgements of others instead of asking for our needs to be met (2004). Rosenberg (2004) says, to bring about social change, it is essential that we free ourselves from any spiritual or theological beliefs that conflict with our vision of a better world, to initiate social change, we need to have a clear understanding of the kind of world we want to create and begin living in a way that aligns with that vision, the moment we start living according to a different set of spiritual values is when we begin to bring about social change. All the participants were in a position of leadership within the horse world, they were committed to implementing their learning about horses and being an example of that to others, valuing the horse as a sentient being and its ability to show us the way to be. Living their truth impacts their mental health for the better.
Owning a horse can bring a sense of calmness and joy to the owner. Although some people may view it as a typical activity, horse owners feel grateful for experiences that others may not be able to understand, especially those who are not familiar with horses. Participants described learning from stressful aspects of horse ownership, which also brought encouragement.
Horses can teach women to manage life by attending to their nervous systems and the importance of rest in today’s busy world. Horses provide a non-judgmental outlet for owners to build confidence and self-esteem outside of competition with others. When we let go of judgment, we open ourselves up to self-compassion, which in turn allows kindness and gentleness to flourish as prominent traits.
Combining equine-assisted therapies with other frameworks can help overcome neuroses. The simple acts of being with horses and talking about horses with a professional are powerful agents in the mental health and well-being of horse owners, more research in this area could be enlightening both the case of owning horses or equine therapy as a longer-term intervention.
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