The Priory enlists horses to treat the anxious, the angry and the addicted

They call it Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy. You might call it horse-hugging. But it's the latest way to kick bad habits. Jonathan Thompson reports
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Hanging out with horses, it is claimed, can help addicts understand animals and therefore themselves.

Welcome to the world of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).

At a riding school nestled among trees and fields around the no man's land where north London blurs into Hertfordshire, a small group of people wait in silence by the gate to a stable yard.

Of all ages and both sexes, the group of 10 paying customers watch eagerly as two horses are led from their stables, before following them and a handful of trained instructors into a covered teaching arena.

But this is far from an average group of equine enthusiasts about to saddle up for a riding lesson. In fact, the majority of those present have never, and perhaps will never, ride a horse.

All of the clients filing on to the shredded rubber of the arena this afternoon have one thing in common: they suffer from a clinical addiction.

This is one of the first sessions of a revolutionary treatment recently introduced by the Priory Group.

The therapy, pioneered in America, involves patients facing, and hopefully overcoming, their demons by working and communicating with horses.

In a method that is almost exactly the opposite of "horse-whispering", patients seek treatment for conditions ranging from drink or drug addiction to anxiety disorders or depression by learning from and responding to a group of handpicked horses during a series of set tasks and role-playing games. By learning how to connect with and control the animals, so the theory goes, they can better understand how to fully connect with and control themselves.

The ground-breaking therapy has been introduced at the Priory's north London clinic as part of its larger addiction treatment programme. It has been overseen by the American therapist Don Lavender, who was instrumental in its initial development at the famed Sierra Tucson clinic in Arizona. "If you're active in a compulsivity or an addiction, it's highly likely that you're not connected to your own emotional state. Horses can help you to do that," said Mr Lavender, who has recently finished writing a book on the subject.

"Horses are perhaps the most empathetic animals on the planet after us, which is what makes them perfect for this kind of work. They are hyper-vigilant and can mirror emotional states in humans."

It is this mirroring of human feelings that makes horses so valuable as a therapeutic tool, according to adherents of EAP. The animals can sense emotions such as excitement, love and fear - partly through their attuned sense of smell - and will respond to them.

By looking at the reactions of the horses, trained psychotherapists like Mr Lavender say they can assess and help the patients working with them.

"We're actually using the horse as two things: a therapeutic tool and a diagnostic tool," explained Mr Lavender. "The horse's reaction, in mirroring what it senses, is basically articulating what the human is not."

The therapy has already proved a success at addiction clinics on the other side of the Atlantic, including the Sierra Tucson clinic and the infamous Promises Malibu in California - where former patients have reportedly included the actors Ben Affleck, Christian Slater and Robert Downey Jnr.

Now the Priory Group, Britain's leading independent chain of mental health clinics, has taken up the treatment at its north London hospital.

Steve Cole, the senior therapist on the addictive treatment programme at the clinic, said: "EAP is useful for the treatment of a lot of disorders - anxiety, anger, depression and addiction - and a significant number of people have already benefited from it.

"It is about recognising behaviour and changing it. It is not really about the horse, it is about the person. The horse becomes a canvas, and can start a therapeutic chain of events."

Back in autumnal north London, this afternoon's two-hour session is coming to a close. The patients have been engaged in a team game called Billiards, where they have to stand in a line between two water buckets and take it in turns to step out and try to move a horse into a chosen "pocket" made with poles, without speaking to it or touching it.

One of today's therapists, Melanie Gold, 31, says she has been pleased with the work achieved so far.

"It's very early days, but this seems to be really working - with the world of addictions in particular.

"All of the horses have different personalities, just as people do, and it is interesting to see how they interact with each other. You have to be emotionally connected to yourself before you can even begin to be connected to the horse, and often that can be like hitting yourself over the head with the answers," said Ms Gold. "It's all about self-realisation."

SO DOES IT WORK?

Carolyn, a 34-year-old from London, began Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy in August, as part of a hospital programme to overcome depression. Discharged last week, she credits the new therapy as instrumental in her recovery.

"I've done eight or nine sessions with the horses and I've got something out of it every time," she says. "The first time, I put my hand straight into the horse's mouth, and got bitten. That made me realise I was diving straight into things in my life, without thinking through the consequences.

Working with horses has taught me a lot about teamwork ... I've learnt that sometimes you can't control everything and you just have to take a step back, and ride life."

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