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Equine therapy: The answer to emotional issues and addictions?

Julia Stuart
Tuesday 09 January 2007 01:00 GMT

I am standing next to a mare who is nudging her velvety nostrils at me. The last time I was this close to a horse, I was eating one at a restaurant in Kazakhstan. But now we are at a farm in east London, and Annie doesn't know that.

I have come to the Mudchute Equestrian Centre to to sample equine-utilised psychotherapy. With me is Don Lavender, an American psychotherapist who has been using horses to help treat addicts for 16 years. The therapy can be used for eating disorders, relationship issues and "any activity that a human engages in where they are distanced from themselves emotionally".

Lavender has worked at the Sierra Tucson treatment centre in Arizona, which pioneered the therapy. He sets the client tasks and notes their reactions. "The way that I treat myself and other people in relationships is often the way I'll wind up treating the horse," says Lavender, who works with a horse handler. "It's up to the horse professional to observe the behaviour of the horse, and the mental health professional to observe what's going on with the human.

"One of the things that assists with the pychotherapeutic component is identifying the anthropomorphisms that happen - people applying human qualities to the animal. Maybe the horse turns away, and they say it's just like their partner, or their parents who won't deal with them. People will believe that the horse turns away because it doesn't like them."

Lavender believes that horses are an important tool in teaching clients to communicate. Addicts, he says, are preoccupied with fulfilling their own desires. "They're basically operating from a narcissistic posture and if they're going to get anything accomplished with the horse they're going to have to step outside of themselves and interact, communicate and be open to another creature."

The therapy, said to have helped Sophie Anderton and Robert Downey Jnr, can also be used for couples and small groups. Individuals may have six to 12 sessions as part of regular therapy.

Lavender starts our session by picking up one of Annie's hooves, and then asks me to do the same. Once he reveals the secret - squeezing her tendon - she complies. But she is certainly nervous.

Lavender asks how frightened I am, on a scale of one to 10. Remembering my sister, who was kicked by a horse, I say: "Nine to 10." We conclude that Annie has picked up on my fear.

Next, I'm asked to make her follow me. But Annie is having none of it, and Lavender suggests I tell her how anxious she makes me feel. I lead her away and tell her.

I'm asked to put on her headpiece. As I try to work out which way it goes, Lavender wonders whether I have trouble asking for help. As I approach Annie, she flashes the whites of her eyes. "I think she's frightened of me," I say. Lavender asks whether I frighten people off in relationships.

He suggests I make her walk and trot in a circle on a long rein. He demonstrates, and Annie obeys. But when it's my turn, I can't even get her to move. I give up, but then Annie, who doesn't like her head to be touched, saunters up and offers me her nose to pat. We have made a connection.

"How many relationships do you have where you are accepted unconditionally for who you are as a person? Horses accept others unconditionally because belonging to the herd is survival," explains Lavender, who has a private practice in London.

Watching us is David, a 43-year-old project worker who underwent equine-utilised psychotherapy as part of treatment for cocaine and alcohol addiction. David has been clean and sober for three years.

"I remember trying to get the horse to follow me," he says. "The first time, it didn't. My head was all over the place. When you're grounded it's so much easier to make a connection. I enjoyed being with the horses and they made certain behaviours really obvious, particularly the self-obsession. Being with the horses helped me to consider the real needs of another."

Despite my dislike of horses, I have developed a soft spot for Annie. And, while we may never be best of friends, I take the offer of her soft nostrils as a handshake, which pleases me.

Equine-Utilised Psychotherapy by Don Lavender is published by Mrunalini Press at £9.95 (

Animals that heal

* Equine-utilised psychotherapy was developed by Barbara Rector at the Sierra Tucson treatment centre in Arizona.

* Many animals are used as therapy aids. Dogs, cats, horses, rabbits and fish provide psychiatric assistance to humans suffering from agoraphobia, addiction, depression and schizophrenia.

* In the US, the notion of "emotional support animals" has become so mainstream that a pet that helps you to stay sane now has the same legal rights in housing and transportation (including air travel) as a guide dog.

* A recent British study found that the presence of a dog during potentially painful medical procedures reduced physiological and psychological levels of distress in chronically ill children.

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