Horses and connection
Loneliness. It’s a hot topic in public health and now is being measured as something that has an impact on mental and physical wellbeing. According to The Campaign to end Loneliness “Research shows that lacking social connections is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015)”, this statistic along with the links to increases in depression (Cacioppo et al, 2006) (Green et al, 1992) and an increased risk in developing dementia (Holwerda et al, 2012) it is clear that loneliness is a real problem that needs to be looked at by any organisation looking to help people live their best lives.
This need for connection with others is something clearly demonstrated by our therapy herd. Horses, like humans, are social mammals designed to live in groups or herds, and that interaction with others is vital to their emotional and physical health. Horses routinely kept in isolation or unable to interact freely in a herd environment begin to show stressed behaviour. They often resort to ‘vices’ or stereotypy such as weaving, wind sucking, crib biting and box walking. These behaviours are the horses attempt to self soothe the stress of isolation, of being kept outside their natural environment.
When separated from their herd a horse’s senses go onto high alert. Without other eyes and ears to look out for danger they need to be on high alert. Prolonged periods at ‘high alert’ causes their systems to flood with stress hormones as they are unable to relax to eat, roll, sleep and engage in other relaxation activities such as mutual grooming. These horses then seek ‘soothing’ activities to help them manage the situation they are in. Horses aren’t able to reach for a glass of wine, scroll through social media or take narcotics to soothe these feelings, but if they were, I can imagine that periods of isolation would lead them to do just that.
We often think of loneliness as affecting older people, those whose children are grown and may have been widowed or have limited mobility. Loneliness is often equated with being alone, and whilst this is often an overwhelming cause of loneliness so can the inability to form meaningful connections, or an understanding of emotional and social situations. You can be lonely in a room full of people if you do not understand the social conventions, feel confident enough to reach out or even have simply withdrawn into yourself. Like the horses though, to be our best selves we need those connections with others, positive connections that help us to be our best selves.
Our therapy herd love to help people begin to make those connections and let go of the barriers people may carry to making them. They use their natural instincts to teach people how to manage extreme emotions, so often a barrier to genuine connection, how to be open and trusting and also how to have appropriate boundaries and self-belief. Working with groups and individuals are therapy horses have become experts at teaching connection. People learn to connect with the horses, with the others in their group, with our staff and then how to go and make those connections outside the centre.
When people are surrounded by those positive connections, they are able to let go of their unhealthy coping mechanisms, instead learning new positive methods to soothe the feelings that have previously caused them to turn to coping mechanisms. Just like a horse with ‘vices’ returned to a more natural form of living will often fully or partially cease to engage in these soothing actions, a person with better coping mechanisms, understanding of their emotions and increased positive social connections can begin to live their best lives. Just ask those our horses have helped, those positive changes last a lifetime.