Impact of horses on wellbeing and mental health measured in new research project

Posted by Devon Partnership Trust in Mental health, News, Recovery and wellbeing on 8th May, 2019

New research by the University of Exeter Business School will assess the benefits of a programme where horses are central to improving mental health and wellbeing. 

Horsemanship for Health UK, a community interest company, runs courses for the NHS and other organisations, where participants can develop their self-understanding and deepen relationships through direct contact with horses. The programme works with people suffering from a range of mental health conditions or issues which impact upon their wellbeing. The team works mostly with groups, including patients from Langdon Hospital, Dawlish which is part of Devon Partnership NHS Trust. Their social education courses encourage wisdom, wonder and wellbeing through mindful reflection in nature and central to their work is the interaction and connection between the humans and the animals. 

The popular programmes have been running at a farm based outside Newton Abbot for three years and now academic Dr Donna Poade has been awarded funding to evaluate how effective it is and the impact it can have on an individual’s life.

“The feedback from people taking part in Horsemanship for Health has been incredibly positive. It ties in with other work demonstrating the impact on wellbeing and mental health of innovative therapies based on mindfulness principles,” said Dr Poade, who is a Lecturer in Management. 

“What we want to do is to measure that impact, the benefits and value of the programme, with the results then shared with policy makers and NHS professionals who consider the options for treating those with mental health conditions.”    

Karen, a participant on a recent Devon Recovery Learning Community course, commented: “Although I've already tried extremely hard to survive my mental health struggles, the taster was the start point of my recovery. I had an epiphany; what I really need, is to open myself up to my feelings, learn how to mindfully accept them before I can conduct a strategy for managing them.

“I have always been more connected with animals than people, but for me the experience was unusual. I felt it was more than just a bonding experience, it was like a connection of souls. I recognised things about myself through the horse that I feel will be vital for my journey, things I wouldn't have considered before but at that time were in perfect clarity. Most of all, I felt a huge relief that for a moment, I wasn't at all wrapped up in my own mind. I wasn't consumed by my suffering. I was content. Additionally, I am now moving forward with a confidence in myself that I don't feel I ever truly have had.”

Louise, who attended an Animal Wisdom course, said: “I sleep very badly with my mind churning and only can once I get exhausted around 4 or 5 am. But after my time with gentle Dragonfly, for a little while at least, I felt rested. I slept more easily and deeply that night than for many months (and without either sleeping pills or tranquilisers)‎.

“I also appreciated how the team’s kindness and focus on the horses, removed the usual expectations of group sessions. I didn't have to do or say anything that wasn't about them. It feels so rare to look outward and not feel obliged to meet someone else's agenda. The team made it easier to be unselfconsciously open to interaction when I'd normally avoid such situations. 

“I recognised others overcoming their difficulties to be there too, and I felt in sharing that, we took some strength from each other.”

“We’re delighted to be working in partnership with the University of Exeter,” said Belinda Seaward, who is one of the directors and founders of Horsemanship for Health. “Our education courses and sessions are specifically designed with our local community in mind. The courses are underpinned by philosophical principles for healthy living and our participants can approach this style of learning from many different levels, irrespective of their age, education or health circumstances. We’ve been incredibly moved by the powerful response to our work so far. With help from the horses and ponies, who act as role models for healthy living, we support people to shift their thinking and develop new insights so that they may better understand themselves and learn how to live with deeper wisdom and wellbeing.”

The grant was one of a number of successful bids in the Development Fund 2019, awarded by Recovery Devon, which is supported by the Devon Partnership NHS Trust. 

Caroline Nicholson, Manager and Peer Trainer, Devon Learning Recovery Community, said the Horsemanship for Health courses were fully booked within days of being advertised through the recovery community. The two organisations are collaborating on new courses for the future. “What a privilege to be working in partnership with such an innovative and resourceful project,” she added.