The Age Interview and Article with Meg Kirby on Equine Psychotherapy, February 2014.

ABC Ballarat Article and Interview with Meg Kirby on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy 2014

Presenter: Meg Kirby?. Recording: Embodied Awareness in Authentic Relationship?. Using “Equine Experiments” to Shift Core Patterns ?with Equine Psychotherapy Australia?. Handout: Coming Soon! ?Length: 1:21 Listen here.

Interview with Gestalt Equine Institute of the Rockies’ Duey Freeman and Joan Rieger 2010 GANZ Jounal Vol6 No2 May 2010 – Duey Freeman and Joan Rieger Interview.pdf

Journal Article by Meg Kirby 2010 on Gestalt based Equine Assisted Psychotherapy? GANZ Jounal Vol6 No2 May 2010 –Gestalt Equine Psychotherapy.pdf


Equine therapy: horse power that heals

There’s a growing interest in Australia in how horses can help treat conditions such as addiction, mental illness, PTSD and autism.

It’s not news that hanging out with animals can be good for human health – helping to improve blood pressure and reduce stress, for instance. But now there’s a growing interest in Australia in how horses can help treat conditions such as addiction, problems with mental health, PTSD and autism.

It’s not just the feel-good factor of being around animals either – there’s something about horses that gives them an edge when it comes to helping troubled humans, says Eliza Henry-Jones, an equine therapist with Odyssey House Victoria which provides treatment for problems with alcohol and other drugs.

That “something” is that unlike cats or dogs which are predators, horses are prey animals that evolved to live in herds and for survival’s sake they’re highly sensitive to changes in body language in other animals that can signal danger. On top of that, thousands of years of domestication has tuned them into human emotions. It’s because of these qualities that horses can help teach humans to manage a variety of problems, she explains.

With the help of equine therapy, children in Odyssey House Victoria’s Kids in Focus program have become more aware of their emotions and able to regulate themselves better, and often do better at school as a result, Henry-Jones says. These are kids from families affected by drug or alcohol abuse and the horses are part of the treatment that helps the whole family.

It’s not so much about getting on the horse – although that comes later – as learning how to earn a horse’s trust and co-operation which in itself is a lesson in getting your own emotions in check.

“With an anxious child or an angry child, the horse will pick up and respond to that. The children have to learn to reflect on their feelings and change their behaviour,” she says. “As for the more withdrawn or disassociated children who can be harder to reach, the horse can become a point of connection – a way for a therapist to start talking to a child.

“Sometimes children will project their own feelings on to the horse – they might say that a horse is looking lonely or feeling left out. Sometimes they’ll tell their secrets to a horse.”

Meanwhile, at Nungkari Treatment Centre, near Byron Bay in NSW, which treats problems with substance abuse and mental health, horses provide weekly sessions that help clients  build confidence and self-esteem and learn to respect boundaries, consulting psychologist David Godden says.

“Equine therapy has grown in the last five years in Australia for treating problems with mental health and trauma,” he says. But unlike the US where equine therapy is used quite widely with substance abuse, we’re probably the only place in Australia using it with drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

“That’s not to say that equine therapy is hugely effective used alone – it’s a complementary therapy that works together with other therapies. ”

At Horses for Hope a program run by Kildonan Uniting Care in Shepparton, Victoria, it’s more of a two-way street. Along with the humans who come with problems like depression, anxiety, autism, PTSD or difficulty managing anger – there are also horses needing help to change their behaviour before they can be rehomed or returned to their owners.

“We teach our clients to help horses feel safe with humans – and first they practise on horses that are well on their way to overcoming their fears,” explains Colin Emonson, manager of the program which has a six-month waiting list and survives on donations. “The aim is to help a horse go from thinking ‘here’s a new person – this could be trouble’ to ‘thank you – I know you’ll be good to me’.

“Horses are helpful with clients who have difficulty developing trust – we find that once someone has built a trusting relationship with a horse it helps them trust the therapist.

“But it’s more complex than just feeling good around animals. When clients can say to themselves ‘this hurt horse feels better because of me’, they have a new sense of efficacy. They can start to see themselves not as someone with a problem but as someone who’s competent, calm and who can forge a connection with a horse – they can start to build a new story about themselves.”

Horses Have a Miraculous Effect on People with Alzheimer’s


The breathtaking majesty of equine power and grace has given horses a storied place in the lives and legends of human beings. Now, a new study from Ohio State University has found that horses can also have a near-magical effect on people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Instead of engaging in their usual crafts and exercise classes at an adult day center, eight adults with Alzheimer’s volunteered to feed, walk, paint and groom horses at a local farm once a week for a month. The horses were specially-selected for their calm, easygoing dispositions and participation in a prior therapeutic riding program for children with physical and developmental disabilities.

The effect on the older adults was almost instantaneous, according to Holly Dabelko-Schoney, lead author and associate professor of social work at Ohio State. “The experience immediately lifted their mood, and we saw a connection to fewer incidences of negative behavior,” she says in a university news release.

The benefits of equine interaction

Increased isolation, pain and stress often accompany advancing age; a fact which has led to a rise in the use of animal-based therapy in elder care settings. The science-backed benefits of interacting with animals—reduced anxiousness, enhanced feelings of calm—endure, regardless of an individual’s age.

Animal therapy for the elderly has traditionally been the purview of smaller animals—dogs, cats, rabbits, geese, etc. (One study even found that watching fish swim around a fish tank and eat could convince a reluctant elder with Alzheimer’s to eat.) These animals are easy to transport to a variety of locations and typically don’t pose a serious threat to an aging adult’s health or safety.

Due in part to the success of therapeutic riding programs for children with Autism and other conditions marked by difficulty with mental and motor skill development, Alzheimer’s care specialists are now beginning to branch out, using bigger animals such as horses (both miniature and regular-sized) and llamas to enrich the lives of aging adults with dementia.

As the Ohio State study demonstrates, these interventions could potentially have major positive implications for seniors and their caregivers.

After the older adults interacted with the horses, mouth swabs were used to determine the amount of cortisol (a stress hormone) in the senior’s saliva and a modified version of the Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale—a test commonly used to monitor behavioral issues in people living in long-term care settings—was used to measure their emotional response. Across the board, those seniors who interacted with the horses scored better on the behavior scale than those who participated in the normal activities at the adult day care center.

Surprisingly, individuals with Alzheimer’s who worked with the equines had higher levels of cortisol in their saliva—indicating that they were more stressed. Due to the fact that these patients were smiling and engaging positively with the animals, study authors attribute this finding to increased levels of “good” stress that can arise when a person is exposed to a new situation where they feel in control and accomplished.

Despite various mobility limitations—which, for some, included being in a wheelchair—helping the horses motivated the men and women with Alzheimer’s to become more physically active. Even the most inhibited patients opened up in a positive way with the animals.

Even if the effects didn’t last long, researchers were heartened by the possibility of equine therapy leading to true enhancement of the lives of people with Alzheimer’s. As Dabelko-Schoney says, “Our focus is on the ‘now.’ What can we do to make them feel better and enjoy themselves right now? Even if they don’t remember it later, how can we help in this moment?”

The power of horses to help heal after assault

With a swish of their tail or a stamp of a hoof, a horse can communicate how it is feeling. But for the victims of sexual assault, expressing themselves can sometimes be confusing and frustrating.


A rider comforts his horse after a long day working in the fields.


In Bundaberg, one organisation brings the two together to encourage those who feel trapped by sexual assault and mental illness to go for a ride outside their comfort zone with the assistance of a horse.

“Equine-assisted therapy has got very significant clinical outcomes in areas of depression, reduction of depression, anxiety and reducing other trauma symptoms. That is across ages, genders and cultures,” said Helena Botros from Phoenix House.

Helena has been a counsellor at Phoenix House in Bundaberg for about 12 years, working with the victims of sexual abuse, both adults and children.

She first got the idea to use horses as a different form of therapy when she bought one for her daughter.

“It wasn’t all about riding and it wasn’t all about pulling the horse to a stop and kicking it to go, there was so much more involved,” she said.

“What I discovered was there was a lot of personal growth happening.

“So I thought it would be good to look into and to even conduct some research to see if personal growth can happen through interaction with horses for our clients.”

That was 10 years ago. Now after training with a similar program based in Utah in the US and two research papers by Helena later, equine-assisted therapy is a core part of the services offered at Phoenix House.

Learning to trust again

Different classes are run for young children, adolescents and adults. Helena said the program for children and teenagers is a bit more ‘action packed’.

“It is much more about learning skills around horses, safety, how to establish boundaries, and how to become assertive without becoming aggressive. It’s about how to be able to read body language and then respond accordingly,” she said.

“Adults are more about processing things, even outside the arena just sitting with horses, learning the art of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’.”

Helena said victims of trauma are able to improve how they respond to body language and social cues with horses, as the animals can only show how they’re feeling.

“They’re very clean, concise and consistent in how they show you,” she said.

“I think it’s so much easier to do it through the medium of a horse; people feel safer where they don’t feel judged and they’re not locked in our counselling room.

“Children, adolescents and adults alike tend to be more ready to step out of their comfort zone a little bit and be open to learning about themselves.”

Horsing Around in Childhood Really Can Change Your Life

First evidence-based study to measure positive levels of stress hormones in children in touch with horses

What is it about kids and horses? A new study measures a change in juvenile participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol after working around horses.

What is it about kids and horses? A new study measures a change in juvenile participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol after working around horses.

We all know it’s true, but now there’s proof: horses have a positive effect on children.

A study published this month in the American Psychological Association’s Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin documents work done at Washington State University (WSU). The WSU study, “Randomized Trial Examines Effects of Equine Facilitated Learning on Adolescents’ Basal Cortisol Levels” is the first evidence-based research within the field of human-equine interaction to measure a change in participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The study is much more than a reinforcement of the “ feel-good” benefits of being around animals. In particular, the researchers designed the study to see if there was a way their research could be utilized in the prevention of mental health problems later in life.

Students were randomly selected to be evaluated before and after their work period with horses. Their cortisol levels were compared with a group of children who did not have the chance to work with horses. Children who worked with horses had lower stress hormone levels.

Students were randomly selected to be evaluated before and after their work period with horses. Their cortisol levels were compared with a group of children who did not have the chance to work with horses. Children who worked with horses had lower stress hormone levels.

“We are especially interested in optimizing healthy stress hormone production in young adolescents,” said lead researcher Patricia Pendry, PhD, a developmental psychologist at WSU, ”because we know from other research that healthy stress hormone patterns may protect against the development of physical and mental health problems.” The beauty of studying stress hormones is that they can be sampled quite non-invasively and conveniently by sampling saliva in naturalistic settings as individuals go about their regular day,” Pendry said.

While human-animal interaction programs with horses, dogs, cats and other companion animals have been credited with improving social competence, self-esteem and behavior in children, scientifically valid research to support these claims – and an understanding of the underlying mechanism for why people report a positive experience in these programs – has been limited.

With the support of a $100,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Pendry’s research project engaged students in grades 5-8 in a 12-week equine facilitated learning program in Pullman, Washington.

Stephanie Roeter, WSU graduate student and co-author, processes saliva samples to measure stress hormones.

Stephanie Roeter, WSU graduate student and co-author, processes saliva samples to measure stress hormones.

Dr. Pendry has been riding and working with horses since she was a child and reacquainted herself with therapeutic horsemanship through  PATH (Palouse Area Therapeutic Horsemanship) at the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, before the study began.   Working with PATH director Sue Jacobson and Phyllis Erdman from the WSU College of Education, Pendry designed and implemented an after-school program serving 130 typically developing children over a two-year period that bused students from school to the barn for 12 weeks.   Pendry said stress hormone functioning is a result of how we perceive stress as well as how we cope with it. Stress is not just what you experience, she said, but it’s how you interpret the size of the stressor. A child in front of a large, unfamiliar horse may experience more stress than when he or she encounters a smaller, more familiar animal.

From left: Sue Jacobson, Patricia Pendry and Phyllis Erdman with two PATH horses. (Photo by Kate Wilhite, WSU)

From left: Sue Jacobson, Patricia Pendry and Phyllis Erdman with two PATH horses. (Photo by Kate Wilhite, WSU)

Children were randomly assigned to participate in the program or be waitlisted. Based on natural horsemanship techniques, the program provided 90 minutes weekly to learn about horse behavior, care, grooming, handling, riding and interaction.

Participants provided six samples of saliva over a two-day period both before and after the 12-week program. Pendry compared the levels and patterns of stress hormone functioning by measuring cortisol.

“We found that children who had participated in the 12-week program had significantly lower stress hormone levels throughout the day and in the afternoon, compared to children in the waitlisted group,” she said. “We get excited about that because we know that higher base levels of cortisol – particularly in the afternoon – are considered a potential risk factor for the development of psychopathology.”

Pendry said the experimental design underlying the study gives more scientific credit to the claims of therapeutic horsemanship professionals, parents and children who have reported a positive impact from these types of programs.

Washington State University's Dr. Patricia Pendry combined the resources of her university's education and veterinary medicine departments, as well as equine therapy staff from the PATH equine therapy program and local children to design this study.

Washington State University’s Dr. Patricia Pendry combined the resources of her university’s education and veterinary medicine departments, as well as equine therapy staff from the PATH equine therapy program and local children to design this study.

In addition, she hopes the results will lead to development of alternative after-school programs.

While the research focused on prevention, Pendry said she believes it could provide a starting point to look at the impact on children of high levels of stress and physical or mental health issues.

“Partly because of NIH’s effort to bring hard science to the field of human-animal interaction, program implementers now have scientific evidence to support what they are doing,” she said.

Download the full paper at this link to the study at the American Psychological Association’s Human – Animal Interaction Bulletin website.

All photos courtesy of Dr. Pendry except the top image, which is by Trey Ratcliff of the amazing “Stuck in Customs” HDR blog, and shows his daughters grooming a miniature horse (and decreasing their cortisol levels) in New Zealand.

Thanks to Rachel Webber of WSU Communications whose original article on the study included Dr. Pendry’s quotes, some of which are used here, along with the WSU photos, with permission.