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Pilot project shows benefits of equine therapy on mental health

Increased levels of self-esteem, confidence and energy levels were reported by those taking part in an equine-assisted services project in Britain.
 File image by Ralf Siebeck 

A recent collaboration between British mental health charity “Mind in Bradford” and the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) involved participants spending time with horses to evaluate the mental health benefits that equine-assisted services can bring.

The six-week pilot project was run by Mind in Bradford and the Cliff Hollins RDA Group in West Yorkshire which operates from the Cliff Hollins Riding School. It took place in September and October with the help of the RDA coaches and volunteers.

Six participants took part in the project, most of whom had no previous experience with horses or ponies, with activities from learning how to approach and handle a horse to aspects of their care such as grooming or picking out feet.

All the participants enjoyed the experience and found it an opportunity to immerse themselves in something new.

A Mind in Bradford client said: “Before I came to Mind last summer, I was in a very bad way with my anxiety and depression. I have always loved horses and it was nice to meet people on the course who were understanding as they have similar difficulties themselves. I enjoyed being with the horses and ponies, as they don’t judge! I liked learning how to care for them and enjoyed learning to ride properly, being out in the fresh air.”

The project was the inspiration of Andy Gray, the RDA’s Regional Coordinator for Yorkshire and Cleveland. He has been a long-time advocate of equine-assisted activities, and approached Mind in Bradford with a proposal for the two charities to work together to enable individuals with mental health challenges to have regular sessions at the Cliff Hollins Riding School. “Working with a like-minded charity to support the mental health of the participants by connecting them with horses was a very rewarding experience,” he said.

Working with horses as a form of therapy has been gaining interest from mental health professionals, and many participants at more than 400 RDA Groups across the country are encouraged to take part in RDA sessions by their occupational, physical or mental well-being therapists.

Research amongst participants following the completion of the project found that many of them felt increased levels of self-esteem, confidence and energy levels with 100% of those taking part claiming to have enjoyed the activity.

Previous research by RDA titled Horses, Health and Happiness concluded that it is not only the participants who benefit from working with horses. The report surveyed more than 1600 RDA volunteers who found that getting involved in local RDA Groups offers opportunities to gain confidence and acquire new skills and knowledge. Nearly a quarter of RDA volunteers have a disability themselves that affects their daily lives and find that volunteering can play an important role in supporting their own mental health and well-being.

Evidence from the UK Census 2021 also demonstrates the importance of projects such as the Mind in Bradford and RDA collaboration at the Cliff Hollins Riding School. The census found that around 4 in 10 (39%) disabled adults experienced some form of depression; this was three times greater than non-disabled adults (13%).

Mind in Bradford’s Service Manager Phil Woodward said the sessions had been a huge success. “There has been lots of positive feedback around how the staff at the stables have shown care and empathy both towards the clients attending and the horses they are looking after.

“Two of the clients have signed up to be volunteers and there has been an increase in self-confidence and confidence around the horses,” he said.

Cliff Hollins Riding School, RDA and Mind in Bradford plan to run another project later this year. Applications are open to all well-being clients of Mind in Bradford.

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