Mental Health and Horse Archery

Thank you to Bianca Stawiarski for this Blog Article 🙂

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (2007) reported that one out of every 5 people has experienced, or suffers from, a mental health issue in Australia. It’s highly likely that you know someone, or you may have experienced a mental health issue yourself. Due to these high numbers, it is critically important that the stigma and lack of knowledge surrounding mental health is improved. It is also important that ways to improve mental health and wellbeing are not approached as a “one-size fits all”, with only room-based talk therapy being an option. Today within Australia and globally, we are in an exciting time of increasingly researched and efficacious modalities offering varied choice in ways to improve our mental health. Variations of one of these options is Equine Assisted Therapy.

Our body is uniquely designed to maintain internal equilibrium by unconsciously adjusting our autonomic nervous system and hormone levels. Our Sympathetic Nervous System controls and enacts our flight, fight or freeze response as a primal safety function. Some clues that your sympathetic nervous system is activated are: your mouth becoming dry; your heart rate increases, and you may feel nauseated. Our parasympathetic nervous system is called the “rest and digest” function, unconsciously regulating the body’s internal balance. Clues your parasympathetic nervous system is activated is that your heart rate decreases, and you may feel relaxed and calm. Both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work to maintain the body’s homeostasis; keeping us safe, alive and thriving. Debilitating issues such as Anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, to name two, may mean in a simplistic way that the Sympathetic Nervous System is heightened, without the equally regulating balance of the parasympathetic nervous system operating as it should.

How Horses Help

Hallberg states, “Hippocrates believed horseback riding was a universal language with a healing rhythm, and physicians prescribed riding to address mental, physical and emotional issues” (Hallberg, 2018, p. 12-13). Within Australia, the ability to access services providing either riding or non-mounted mental health informed Equine Assisted Therapy / Equine Assisted Psychotherapy are increasing. Mental health programs involving relational partnership with horses, can assist, improve and transform people’s experience. Whether it be right, wrong or somewhere in between; people are impacted by social, cultural and gender-specific norms and rules of what is expected. We are regularly encouraged to mask our emotions to avoid showing the depth of how we are really feeling when in the company of others. This can lead to a mistrust of another person’s true intentions towards us and a disconnection with our own inner experience and intuition. Also, it would be a very rare individual who hasn’t experienced some form of hurt through interaction with another person. This may lead to various levels of distrust or apprehension about displaying our vulnerability to someone else. When working in respectful partnership with horses, we recognise them as unique individual beings with their own wants, needs, emotions and social interactions. It is for this reason that we do not “use” horses as a tool or a mere reflection of our experience. The transforming process involves us embracing and exploring our inner experience, our vulnerability, while sharing relational connection with horses. Trauma specialist, Dr van der Kolk (2014) describes this eloquently when discussing a teenage client; “When I asked her what helped her the most, she answered ‘the horse I took care of’. She told me that she first started to feel safe with her horse; he was there every day, patiently waiting for her, seemingly glad upon her approach. She started to feel a visceral connection with another creature and began to talk to him like a friend. Gradually, she started talking with other kids in the program, and eventually, with her counsellor” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 153).

One of the reasons that we work in partnership with horses, is that they have the innate ability to regulate their emotions and stress levels. They are masters of awareness – constantly scanning for changes in the environment that may signal a threat (or food). If horses get a fright, they generally get very alert, race around, then stop, do a big snort or out breath to release their tension and go back to grazing. Imagine if we were able to regulate ourselves as easily as a horse! Horses can assist us to recognise, explore and embrace what are considered less desirable emotions such as anger, sadness and fear as well as more desirable emotions such as joy. All emotions are equally important, neither more nor less desirable than the other as they show us another part of being truly alive and in the present. The Way of the Horse, gives us a blue print to explore grounded connection, embracing and fully experiencing all our emotions in the present, utilising techniques such as the outbreath and respectful relational contact with other being. Working in mutually beneficial partnership with horses, we may also be resourced to experience and regulate our emotions, while developing social and emotional resilience (Kirby, 2016).

Horse Archery

There is a unique, almost mystical transformation that occurs when a rider shoots a bow from a horse. The rider must be very mindful of their emotional regulation, how this impacts their horse, expending energy on inner awareness, promoting homeostasis. Consciously focusing on inner awareness and emotional regulation as an active process is not something that we usually tend to do. As mentioned previously, spending this time is the first step towards positive wellbeing and good mental health. This is further expanded upon when we remove the rider’s reliance on the reins. As a rider, having our hands on the reins is a structured skill of control. Those two thin strips of leather or webbing create an illusion of having control. This taps into our primitive Limbic system (that which keeps us safe, controls our emotions, behaviour, long-term memory etc). Dropping the reins is almost like a shock – both freeing and scary all at the same time.

Listen to the ABC Radio Segment on Horse Archery HERE. (Refer to the time 18.25 to 22.23min)

If done sensitively, we then discover that there is a depth of emotional resilience that we may not have realised we had. The exhilaration of being free taps into a well inside of us that can be dampened down in daily life. Finally, the connection with our inner primal strength of presence is consolidated through focusing on a target while moving, the muscular tension prior to releasing the arrow and the wonderful experience that partnership with a horse brings. All of this promotes emotional resilience, good mental health and partnership with another. The fantastic thing is that you do not need to be a horse-rider, just be willing to give it a go and have fun.

Consider embracing and exploring a unique way to sensitively and respectfully partner with a horse; while learning from their example of regulating emotion by “being horse”.

Bianca Stawiarski

Empowerment 4 Riders

Master of Counselling Practice (current); Bachelor of Arts (Major: Aboriginal Studies; Sub-major: languages); Equine-Assisted Psychotherapist (certification pending completion of Counselling degree); certified Equine-Assisted Learning Practitioner; Diploma of Life Coaching; Diploma of Government (Contracting); certified Horse Archery Instructor. 

References

Australian Bureau of Statistics (2007) National survey of mental health and well-being. Retrieved from http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs%40.nsf/0d21d0868273a2c3ca25697b00207e97/8ff7145e51803358ca256bd0002706df!OpenDocument

Kirby, M. (2016) An introduction to equine assisted psychotherapy: Principles, theory, and practice of the equine psychotherapy institute model. Bloomington, IN: Balboa Press. ISBN: 978-1-5043-0047-6

Van der Kolk, B. (2014) The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0-14-312774-1

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