Pilot project shows benefits of equine therapy on mental health

File image by Ralf Siebeck

A recent collaboration between UK mental health charity Mind in Bradford and the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) involved participants spending time with horses to assess the mental health benefits that assisted services by horses 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 Cliff Hollins Riding School. It took place in September and October with the help of RDA coaches and volunteers.

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

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

A Mind in Bradford client said: ‘Before coming to Mind last summer I was in really bad shape 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 liked being with horses and ponies, because they don’t judge! I liked learning how to take care of it and I liked learning how to ride properly, in the fresh air.

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

Working with horses as a form of therapy has sparked the interest of mental health professionals, and many participants in more than 400 RDA groups across the country are encouraged to participate in RDA sessions by their occupational therapists, physical or mental.

Research with participants at the end of the project revealed that many felt an increase in their self-esteem, confidence and energy levels, with 100% of participants saying they enjoyed the activity.

Previous search by RDA titled Horses, Health and Happiness concluded that it is not just the participants who benefit from working with horses. The report interviewed over 1,600 RDA volunteers who found that getting involved in local RDA groups provided opportunities to gain confidence and learn new skills and knowledge. Almost a quarter of RDA volunteers themselves have a disability that affects their daily lives and find that volunteering can play an important role in supporting their own mental health and wellbeing.

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

Phil Woodward, director of services at Mind in Bradford, said the sessions had been a huge success. “There was a lot of positive feedback about the way the stable staff showed care and empathy towards the customers in attendance and the horses in their care.

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

Cliff Hollins Riding School, GDR and Spirit in Bradford plan to launch another project later this year. Applications are open to all Wellness clients of Mind in Bradford.

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