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Disengagement from Learning. How can Equine Therapy help?

With the number of children off school more than doubling in the past academic year, compared to pre-pandemic levels (with an average of 16.3% of secondary school students absent during 2021-22, BBC Wales News, 28 July 2022), schools are turning to alternative, nature-based forms of therapy and finding horses highly effective.

Equine Assisted Therapy & Coaching at Track Clinic, Somerset

School leaders agree that increased school absence is due to ‘simply getting out of the habit of regular attendance and not fully re-engaging'*. There is also a strong correlation with the increase in mental health conditions - such as social anxiety, self-harm and eating disorders - as well as more generalised feelings of low self-worth, peer difficulties and exam-related stress. *Eithne Hughes, director of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Cymru

School refusal is often a sign that instinctive fear responses (fight, flight or freeze) have kicked in, finding young people disconnected from others as well as from themselves. As horses know well, when alone and not able to be part of a herd, they feel fearful, lonely and often shut down completely. They can also develop behavioural issues usually classed as ‘naughty and dangerous’ when in fact as highly sensitive, social beings they are only acting from a place of fear and disconnection. The same goes for humans.

Equine therapy provides an effective alternative to conventional talk therapy, which is often rejected by young people who have already distanced themselves socially and emotionally from other humans. A suggestion of spending time working through their difficulties with a small herd of therapy horses is often a more appealing proposition than of sitting in a room face-to-face with a human therapist.

On a fundamental level, equine therapy works on a subconscious level without the need for analytical engagement or many words and hence provides a very gentle, yet profound way of addressing deeply set behaviours and difficulties. There are no expectations on how to be with the horses and the horses respond honestly and authentically to how the young person makes them feel, offering long-lasting insight into improving their condition.

Track Clinic's therapy herd at work. Alpacas too instinctively sense the energetic state of others.

There is no riding involved and there is no need to have any interest in or experience of horses. Students are asked to wear suitable outdoor clothing and sturdy footwear. We work outdoors in all weathers (apart from very high winds) and can choose to shelter from rain, heat or cold when needed, just like the horses!

Several schools and local councils have already discovered and embraced this relatively unknown way of ‘re-engaging’ young people, leading to improved school attendance and learning capacity. A recent group of five 14 and 15-year-olds, all struggling with social anxiety in varying presentations, witnessed a significant change in their way of being and interacting. For one the theme of rejection surfaced immediately when one of the animals walked towards another person. For another, the need to ‘keep busy doing’ was a reoccurring theme. For another a sense of injustice and the need to soothe and pace himself. For another the need to find his place and for another a need to honour and allow her emotions to surface.

As a group, they progressed from saying no more than 2 or 3 words in the first group discussion to having a mature and considered debate about what they wanted to achieve and what they felt strongly about during the last group discussion. They demonstrated bravery, independence and teamwork in a way that had not been witnessed outside of the field. This was mirrored clearly by the horses who expressed agitation, boredom and discomfort during the initial sessions and shifted to becoming ‘more sociable, having fun, supporting each other, running together’, in the words of the participants.

As finely attuned social creatures, therapy horses sense the need for movement and change.

Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires (SDQs) which measure difficulties across externalising problems (conduct and hyperactivity) and internalising problems (emotions and peer problems) were given to students to complete before and after attending the programme. Results showed a positive shift in scores given for ‘Other people my age generally like me’ and a diminished ranking for ‘I am often unhappy, down-hearted or tearful’. Students described the experience as ‘helpful’, ‘fun’, ‘interesting’, ‘relaxing’ and reported feeling ‘happier afterwards’. All participants said they would recommend the programme to other students and noted a range of learnings, noted as;

‘I learned how I react to different situations’

‘I learned that things aren’t always going to be the same’

‘I learned that you have to be gentle to animals and other people’

‘I learned that I don’t need to stress when visiting new places’

Another group, who similarly had no previous experience of being together as a group and also struggled with feelings of anxiety and low self-esteem, found themselves showing great care towards each other and opening up about their needs and fears in a way they had been unable to previously. In this group there was a consistent theme of the horses lying down on the ground, huddled together in a group, as the participants lay next to them, taking time to sense to potential to feel comfort and support. There was a sense of inclusion, freedom and lightness when the programme came to an end with each of the participants wanting to share contact details with the group to continue their newfound friendships.

The school’s Special Educational Needs Coordinator who championed the approach commented;

‘I’ve had some great feedback from the students. They have all found it extremely beneficial and it is most definitely something we will consider for future interventions.’

A parent of one of the attendees commented;

‘My daughter found horse therapy so beneficial. She loves animals - for comfort, mental health and de-stressing. One of the girls suggested making a group chat which meant the world to her having had no friends in her year at school.’

Equine Assisted Therapy & Coaching can be attended individually or booked in groups of 4-6 students. Formal reviews take place after completion of a 6-week treatment programme, with input from students, parents and teachers, to aid the integration of learnings back into the classroom and everyday life.

For students in receipt of an EHCPs or EOTAS sessions and workshops are usually fully funded. Track Clinic works with Pastoral Leads, SENCOs and Key Workers to obtain the necessary approvals and consents. Track Clinic is an Approved Provider for Somerset, Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon Councils.

For more information and availability contact


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