All posts by Joe Hinds

The Horse as a Therapist’s Assistant

Philosophers and practitioners alike have recognised that humankind has had a long and enduring relationship with all things natural. Jung had suggested that our over-civilised selves could do with some re-wilding! One route to this is to re-connect with our animal brethren, and for those who have suffered psychological trauma, a more specific approach is through animal-assisted therapy. While many animals provide comfort at a simple psychological and physiological level as ‘companions’, others elicit different responses and experiences. Compare, for instance, being in the company of a whale or goldfish. In the company of a large animal, it is possible that a sense of awe triggers regression to development periods that reflect similar relational experiences during childhood, which enables a process of resolution and self-development. Moreover, people with severe trauma or those for whom talking is difficult, such as young children and people with autism, non-linguistic and embodied communication may be more important. Animals are able to ‘read’ these signals and respond and interact in a way that is perceived by many as safe and therapeutic.

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In particular, the use of horses for aiding recovery from trauma, typically Equine Assisted Therapy, has been gaining some interest and practice recently. A forthcoming chapter in a book addressing various forms of outdoor therapy, Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice edited by Martin Jordan and Joe Hinds, details the ideas, benefits and practice behind Equine Assisted Therapy.

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The horse encourages people to act and behave in a way consistent with their actual thoughts and feelings (congruence), which may potentially be overlooked or under-developed within the counselling room. The horse responds with honesty and without a hidden agenda reacting to the internal world of the person, regardless of their efforts to conceal it.

Direct experiences with a large animal can produce a sense of perceived mutual understanding – there is a substitution of verbal cognitive communication for a basic or primal communication that is symbolic and directly dictates behaviour. The human response to a large animal will often be attuned to its physical presence and its movements and may, through the tactile, embodied and physical quality of the animal encounter, enhance important unexpressed emotions and build relational aspects of the self that have been thwarted or under-developed. Martin Clunes the actor experiences this directly in the video below:

In short, these experiences can prompt authentic moments, whereby the statement ‘actions speak louder than words’ has added significance.

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Plotted sustainability: For Mind, Body and the Environment

To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves

Mahatma Gandhi

It is becoming increasingly recognized that the natural environment, in its many forms, may provide health and wellbeing benefits to people who have some degree of contact with it.

Dig for Plenty

Allotments have been an integral part of working communities for many years, providing social, economic and ecological benefits.

While there has been a recent trend towards greater interest in allotments, there is a paucity of empirical research exploring the value of gardening for enhancing wellbeing in non-clinical populations. Generally, the wellbeing benefits and social influences on such activities are not well known, albeit with some notable and recent exceptions showing that allotment gardeners are significantly more active and report higher levels of life satisfaction than their non-allotment holding neighbours.

Recent research is beginning to uncover the range of benefits derived from the experiential nature of gardening. In one case, these benefits mirror the psychological needs espoused by Maslow in his hierarchy of human needs – from food as basic physiological requirement through to those higher needs involving transpersonal interactions.

In a forthcoming paper, appearing in the Journal Ecopsychology this month, a mixed methodological study has determined that allotment gardeners’ wellbeing and quality of life were significantly higher than other people’s. (The wellbeing of allotment gardeners: A mixed methodological study) Importantly, analysis showed that the amount of time gardeners spent on their allotment during summer predicted a particular type of wellbeing called eudemonic wellbeing – one that entails some degree of meaning. This relationship was fully mediated by feelings of connectedness to nature. Essentially, it suggests that wellbeing is achievable through the activity of gardening via developing a sense of meaningful connection to the environment.

In addition, four themes emerged from the qualitative data. Allotments provided: a space of one’s own, meaningful activity, increased feelings of connectedness, and improved physical and mental health. Further development of a broad evidence base for the psychological benefits of allotment gardening have great potential to provide both a justifiable argument to increase, for instance, sustainability through provision of ‘green space’ (particularly within urban areas) and the provision of a low-cost community based intervention to tackle a range of psychological health issues – two birds with one stone.

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