Horses are being used by therapists across the UK to improve people’s lives. Nicola Mitchell is one therapist showing Dorset that this therapy makes a difference.

Nicola Mitchell feeding Shetland pony Rosie

Nicola Mitchell feeding Shetland pony Rosie @Anna Hayward

In a small field on the outskirts of Bournemouth, Shetland ponies graze and shelter from the cold lash of the rain.

Only five or six hands high, these small, fluffy ponies seem to be just like any other horse.

However these amazing animals are held in high esteem by equine therapists who use horses to help people from all walks of life such as those with autism or substance abuse problems.

Equine learning therapists believe that horses reflect people’s behaviour and emotions, thus teaching us about ourselves and how to improve our lives.

Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) is experimental learning through interaction with horses on the ground, so there is no riding involved.

Nicola Mitchell is an EAL therapist. She believes in the psychological benefits of working with horses.

“Our body language comes out in the horses - they act as a mirror to our moods and emotions. They are highly sensitive to body language,” she says.

For Nicola, who has been riding for over 40 years, her EAL training taught her that she “knew absolutely nothing about horses” and that she “needed to just observe and let things happen”.

EAL gives you an insight into yourself that normal therapy may not asit is a living creature reflecting your behaviour rather than a therapist simply trying to interpret it.

Nicola herself has always been ‘horse mad’. She has loved horses since she could walk and while other girls had posters of their celebrity crushes on their walls, Nicola’s wall was littered with ponies.So when the 59-year-old volunteered at the Fortune Riding Centre in 2011, it seemed natural for her to combine passion with profession.

Since then, Nicola has built her own business based in Dorset, Aspire with Horses, which has helped an array of people build skills, confidence and self-perception.
A normal session would involve getting the person to pick the pony they would like to work with and then helping them lead and groom the ponies. It is through leading and grooming the horses that the person learns about themselves.

However this is not always straightforward because the pony has its own thoughts and feelings, which clients have to take into account.

“The horse may not want to move. So the person needs to think is it something they are doing which is reflecting in the way the horse is misunderstanding what they are wanting. Certainly for people with learning difficulties, who don’t have any spatial awareness or personal space, it very much comes out in how they work with the horse,” says Nicola.

She adds that the therapy can have a massive impact on clients and their behaviour in a short space of time. “The difference can be enormous. I’ve had a lad with Asperger syndrome who wouldn’t even walk in the field to start with, who ended up after just two or three sessions leading and grooming horses.”

The therapy, though, is not just exclusive to helping a single person - it can also help families grow closer.

“It’s really lovely because they can come out and work together. It’s also nice for the siblings of autistic children because they often get neglected, so it’s quite nice to do things as a family,” says Nicola.

For many families that use Equine Assisted Learning, especially those with autism, it gives them the chance to have a break from the hardships of daily life.

“I’ve got one family who I’ve worked with for a long time and she said it’s lovely to have the freedom to run around, have the space and not to be looked at and have your behaviour judged by anybody because a lot of people with autistic children get stared at and judged.”

Nicola worked as a P.E. teacher for eleven years and as a youth worker for five, so she has a wide experience with young people but wanted to offer them something different. “I wanted to offer a bit more because school isn’t for everybody and there are an awful lot of children out there who could benefit from something else,” she says.

Many colleges and universities are now offering animal-based courses such as Kingston Maurward College in Dorset, which offers courses such as equine and animal management.

Using animals for therapy is a common practice around the world and is not a new concept with some researchers believing that it began as early as the age of the caveman.

The first documented case in England was in the late 1800s when William Tuke found that using farm animals ‘enhanced the humanity of the emotionally ill’ at the asylum he was working at in York.

For Nicola and other therapists like her, the work is very rewarding. “I feel good when I see the smile on people’s faces when they know they’ve achieved something. Some people have had such a tough life and so it is good to see them come out onto the field to do some successful work with a horse and to feel they are getting something back.”

To find out more about ‘Aspire with Horses’ call Nicola Mitchell on 07811 056 430 or email her at [email protected]