W.I.T.H – Welsh Institute for Therapeutic Horsemanship
How do animal therapies work? Don’t go looking for scientific evidence or hard facts as to why animal therapies work, they just do. Maybe it’s a sixth sense and only tenable if one is open to the idea. After all, communication is key to all forms of life. We do know that horses are a flight animal, reactionary to body language and more than capable of understanding what’s going on inside someone’s head and heart. Friend, or foe? Their survival instinct depends on being able to monitor situations and either look for a means of escape, or seek those beings who offer that safe harbour, a trusted leader. Trust. Once we have trust, we have the foundation to build good relationships, both human and equine. And rehabilitation can be all the richer for being a two-way journey.
When W.I.T.H advertised a course of instruction for freelance assistant equine therapists, I applied immediately. Not only was this the most wonderful opportunity to experience the craft at close quarters, but I felt personally drawn. I passed the initial exam over two intensive weekends, and began to assist fully qualified therapist Jackie Williams at her centre on Anglesey. Bryn Gaseg operates as a satellite partner to the main W.I.T.H base in Portmadog, and is home to a wide variety of equines. Abused, neglected, misunderstood. It’s a well-known fact that getting back to nature can offer a healing balm to those minds and bodies disadvantaged by modern life. Jackie has taken this concept a step further by introducing wild or broken horses to help heal broken people. It may sound ambitious and unlikely, but Williams is adept at bringing the right combination of horse and human together, to create new bonds of trust, hope, and mutual respect. Horses which have been abused can regain trust in us in much the same way an abused human can. And those wild Carneddau colts which have been removed from the mountain and hold no preconceptions of humans or equine practices, are perhaps the most interesting participants, because their interactions are pure.
Ted’s story: a worried horse who had been asked to do a job which was perhaps beyond his capabilities or maybe he’d just been confused by his role – meets Miss X, a young person suffering with PTSD. Miss X was an introvert and found interacting with anyone quite painful. Six weeks of being encouraged along the road of confidence with Ted at her side, proved that these types of therapies are not only unique but extremely powerful. As a fairly gung-ho well-balanced sort of person, I was quite unprepared for how these sessions would affect me. A good few days after the final session I was relating the story of Miss X to my husband – and I burst into tears. How could something so simple as a horse shadowing a sad girl connect so deeply within? Our busy lives are crammed with so much negative stuff that often the answer to our problems is to just be. And horses know how to do that.
Sapphire’s story. The wild Carneddau pony with blue eyes had been ostracised by the main herds for a long time and wasn’t doing too well. It’s something of a mystery why this mare was shunned, but we think her poor eyesight may have much to do with the herds’ strict list of criteria for survival. After a few months of basic nurturing, ‘Saffy’ has been physically transformed, although she remains shy. Williams is keen to keep her ‘wildness’ and avoid over-familiarity, in order to add genuine authenticity to those therapy sessions.
The frustrations of the job are mostly funding, or lack of. (WITH lost some of its funding and so sadly, freelance work dried up for me some time ago) And, because this is a relatively new area, anyone can set themselves up as an ‘equine therapist’ with a couple of horses and plenty of bluff, and so possible exploitation of the craft is always concerning. As well as equestrian knowledge and experience, and a deep understanding of equine body language, what else does it really take? Empathy and observation are paramount skills as a therapist; as is an ability to be able to allow someone the mental, emotional, and physical space of self-discovery and empowerment.
WITH is a pioneering charity based in Portmadog, which aims to help disadvantaged individuals from North Wales and the wider community to improve their health and well-being through equine-assisted, educational and recreational activities. We work with individuals of all ages, many of whom face multiple disadvantages and might never have the opportunity to spend time around horses. Our unique method pairs clients with rescued horses for mutual gaining of trust and respect, and hope for a better future.
More information; book a course of sessions, sponsor a pony or become a volunteer: WWW.with.wales