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Healing With Horses

Healing With Horses

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At EQUAL, a bustling stable of therapy horses offers equine-assisted learning to youth, people with special needs, caregivers and seniors with clinical depression or dementia. Through these sessions, beneficiaries develop socio-emotional skills in a non-clinical setting that helps them succeed in school, employment, or family life.

The gentle giant sizes you up as you approach him. With an almost nonchalant gaze, he flicks his ears and allows you to gingerly stroke his face.

To your surprise, he responds to every touch and reciprocates the affection. Over time, a blossoming friendship between human and horse is formed.

Known as equine-assisted learning (EAL), this experiential learning helps people develop socio-emotional skills such as managing impulsivity, self-awareness, empathy, and confidence.

While it is established in places like Europe, North America, South America and Oceania, EAL has little exposure in Singapore.

EQUAL is one of a handful of places here that offers the experience to youth, the elderly, caregivers, and people with special needs. But in the future, mental health patients may be able to heal with therapy horses as well.

Just recently, in October, EQUAL brought its horses to the grounds of the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) as part of a carnival to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

“We wanted to support IMH's efforts to make the hospital grounds a more welcoming place for the public and by extension, make mental health a more accessible conversation topic,” said chief executive Ng Tze Yong.

For beneficiaries who respond well to animals, the rapport-building is often faster and more efficient, compared to settings which rely on human-human interaction. Photo: EQUAL

Lending Seniors and Youths a Helping Hoof

Located at Jalan Mashhor near Thomson Road, EQUAL was established as a programme in 2011, before registering as a charity and Institution of Public Character four years later.

Secluded by a swathe of forest, this is where 16 horses serve a new need. Many are former race horses or polo ponies who were looking for new homes at the end of their useful life, before being adopted and retrained by EQUAL.

“Different people need different forms of therapy. Therapy animals are different from paint brushes or musical instruments in that they are animate. They respond to the beneficiary in real-time, providing unscripted and authentic learning moments,” said Mr Ng, who joined the charity in 2016. “This makes the learning memorable, and increases the odds of sustained behavioural changes.”

For beneficiaries who respond well to animals, the rapport-building is often faster and more efficient, compared to settings which rely on human-human interaction.

With funding from Temasek Foundation, T-Touch and Trailblazer Foundation, EQUAL piloted a youth programme in 2011, equipping students from NorthLight School and Assumption Pathway School with social, communications and other life skills.

The programme later on expanded to include students from Spectra Secondary School. Over 1,000 students have gone through the programmes from 2011 to 2017.

As part of its youth programme, EQUAL offers modules such as horsemanship, horseplay and riding across an average of 12 sessions.

The potential therapeutic benefits of animals have led to the formalised field of animal-assisted therapy.  

Dr Ong Say How, Senior Consultant and Chief of the Department of Developmental Psychiatry, Institute of Mental Health  

Mindfulness practice is woven into the sessions. Instead of meditating in a quiet room, beneficiaries learn mindfulness in the stables, experiencing, for example, how slowing their breathing can calm the giant beasts in a matter of seconds.

The activities are also a form of “metaphorical learning," noted Mr Ng.

For example, the “Cross the River” horseplay game requires youths to work as a team to guide a horse successfully across a make-believe river marked by cones. The only rule is to never let their horse go, no matter how challenging things get.

“At the end, after bringing the horse across the river, they are asked: ‘what does the horse represent to you?’” he said. “The answers will differ. For some of them, it may be their dreams. For others, it may be their families.”

Spend time with the horses as a family at EQUAL, surrounded by lush greenery. Through fun sessions with the horses, families can look forward to improving family bonds, and strengthening social emotional skills. Photo: EQUAL

In collaboration with EQUAL, IMH is also conducting further research on the impact of EAL on the holistic development of youths in Singapore.

“The potential therapeutic benefits of animals have led to the formalised field of animal-assisted therapy,” said Dr Ong Say How, senior consultant and chief of the Department of Developmental Psychiatry at IMH.

“Our current study, supported by Temasek Foundation, aims to uncover the socioemotional benefits that youths, studying in a specialised school for Normal (Technical) students, can acquire through a community-based EAL programme.”

Galloping Towards Better Care for the Elderly and Families

EQUAL’s success with youths provided a springboard to extend their programmes to mainstream schools, as well as the elderly and families.

For the elderly, working with the horses provides a form of psycho-social care, which is part of the Enhanced Nursing Home Standards introduced by the Ministry of Health in 2013.

According to a 2012 study by National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, one in five seniors in Singapore suffer from depression. One in every three elderly persons above the age of 80 suffer from dementia.

It is providing the elderly in nursing homes with the opportunity to love again. Suddenly, the elderly are motivated again to do so many things--to look up, to stand up, to walk, to talk, and to get to work taking care of the horses. 

Ng Tze Yong, Chief Executive, EQUAL 

At EQUAL, the elderly engage in a role reversal – instead of being a care recipient, they are now the horses’ caregivers.

The programme is measured by EQUAL using the Bradford Well-Being Profiling Tool, which track indicators affecting the elderly's emotional and mental well-being.

“At the end of the day, it is about providing the elderly in nursing homes with the opportunity to love again,” said Mr Ng. “Suddenly, the elderly are motivated again to do so many things – to look up, to stand up, to walk, to talk, and to get to work taking care of the horses.”

Around 12 nursing homes have sent about 350 elderly persons so far, for an average of 10 weekly sessions per run. Currently, 50 per cent of participants have improved in their well-being, while 20 per cent have maintained it.

For the seniors, working with the horses provide a form of psycho-social care, which is part of the Enhanced Nursing Home Standards introduced by the Ministry of Health in 2013. Photo: EQUAL

“Some of the old folks start off shy, grumpy or even angry, but eventually warm up to the horses. We had a lady who hated animals, but after a few sessions, she was hugging and kissing the horses,” added Mr Ng.

EQUAL's newest venture is Wednesdays With Horses, a programme aimed at helping people with special needs and their caregivers develop social-emotional skills together.

Launched in Nov 2019, it is held at a sheltered basketball court in Yishun Central to make horse therapy more accessible in urban Singapore.

Mr Ng and his team plan to extend their reach further by establishing a mental health programme in the future.

Introducing EAL for mental health in a bigger way would require EQUAL's staff, who comprise former teachers, social workers, counsellors, and racing jockeys, to be further trained. The horses, however, do not have to specially trained.

“We just need to keep the horses physically, emotionally and mentally healthy so that even in a domesticated setting, their natural instincts can come to the fore, providing us with the authentic learning moments while interacting with the beneficiaries.”

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