Roll over Freud: Rise of animal therapy

Story highlights

  • Throughout history, humans have relied on animals as a way of improving mental health
  • Equine therapy has grown in popularity in Britain in recent years
  • Psychoanalysts claim it can help depression, bipolar disorder and anger issues
  • Hard evidence remains scarce, largely anecdotal

Beasts of burden, winners of wars and beloved as the sport of Kings -- now horses are being used to cure the ills of modern life.

From the time ancient Egyptians worshiped feline deities, animals have been viewed as a source of strength and healing.

Renowned psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed dogs helped his patients relax during sessions, while the Soviets used dolphins to treat people with mental health disorders in the 1980s.

Today, rabbits, guinea pigs and even the humble gold fish are used to promote a sense of responsibility and wellbeing everywhere from the classroom to the retirement home.

And an increasing number of mental health patients are turning to horses as a legitimate form of therapy -- claiming impressive results where traditional counseling has failed.

Singapore attracts top horse trainers
Singapore attracts top horse trainers


    Singapore attracts top horse trainers


Singapore attracts top horse trainers 02:52
What do winners eat for lunch?
What do winners eat for lunch?


    What do winners eat for lunch?


What do winners eat for lunch? 02:40
First lady of Australian horse racing
First lady of Australian horse racing


    First lady of Australian horse racing


First lady of Australian horse racing 03:49

No longer viewed as simply a crackpot alternative remedy for the rich and famous, equine therapy has gained a devoted following of psychoanalysts who say it has the power to heal people suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, phobias, anger issues and trauma.

"It used to be seen as ridiculous, an airy fairy treatment used by celebrities with drug and alcohol addictions," said Mike Delaney, clinical director at Leading Equine Assisted Therapy (LEAP), based in Gloucestershire, south west England.

"But attitudes have changed a lot. We're now a part of the British Association for Counseling & Psychotherapy (BACP) for example."

Read: A weighty issue -- Hidden world of jockey heaving bowls

The wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney helped boost equine therapy's public profile this year when she revealed it helped her overcome depression, after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 14 years ago.

Ann Romney, who co-owns a horse which competed in the London 2012 Olympic dressage competition, told ABC's "Good Morning America" that horses had motivated her to get out of bed, even in her darkest days.

Across the pond, equine therapy is going from strength to strength, with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), originally based in the U.S., training more than 1,500 therapists in Britain last year. The UK arm says they are now seeing hundreds of new inquiries, compared to just a handful a few years ago.

Read: Melbourne Cup memories -- The legs that stopped a nation

Patients include domestic abuse victims, young offenders and servicemen suffering post traumatic stress -- often turning to their four-legged friends after finding traditional counseling failed them.

Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) usually involves the patient interacting with a horse, alongside a professional councilor and horse handler. Activities might include discussing the horse's character, teaching them to jump over obstacles, grooming and cleaning out stables.

"For a woman who has been a victim of domestic violence, getting the horse to run around her in a circle, may seem simple, but it's a very powerful thing," Delaney, also clinical director at the Bayberry Clinic in Oxfordshire, in south east England, said.

"Building a relationship with the horse and getting it to respect them, really builds self esteem and confidence."

For people who find traditional psychoanalysis too intense, equine therapy can be a way of opening up dialogue with a councilor.

"The thought of sitting in a room opposite a councilor and telling them the same story again is too much for some people, particularly children," Delaney said.

"But when a horse pays attention to them, they get that sense of trust and love back. It enables traditional therapy to happen, rather than being its own thing."

Read: Style bible's most controversial model?

However, scientific evidence of its effectiveness remains thin on the ground, and is mostly anecdotal.

"I've never heard of a medical referral for equine therapy," Psychotherapist Robin Walton, a member of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), said.

"But factors such as being outside and freed from the confines of an office could be tremendously beneficial for the relationship between the patient and therapist."

Delaney recently completed a study in which 40 teenagers from sexually abusive backgrounds were treated with equine therapy once-a-week.

The youngsters, aged between nine and 14-years-old, undertook horsemanship training and counselling as part of their eight-week treatment.

"The change in their behavior was tangible," Delaney said. "The first week they were looking at the ground, too scared to interact with people.

"By the end of the last week they were hugging people, dealing with their anger and managing their emotions."

For patients coming from traumatic home lives, the fresh air of the great outdoors and chance to socialize, are just as much a part of the healing process as the horses themselves, added Delaney.

A 14-year-old girl who was able to overcome her agoraphobia -- a fear of being in public places - was also highlighted by Dr Hannah Burgon, managing director at Sirona Therapeutic Horsemanship in Devon, south east England.

"She had a love of horses, which was the motivating factor for getting her to leave the house," Dr Burgon said. "It helped her build up a relationship with the psychotherapist and work through a lot of issues."

"She's now able to go on shopping trips with her mother and recently went on her first family holiday."

However, therapy doesn't come cheap, with a 90-minute session at Sirona costing £82, usually run once-a-week over a six-week course.

Read: Whykickamoocow -- The secret of silly horse names

The healing power of horses goes back to an age-old relationship with man, according to Burgon.

"We've got this innate connection to horses. They've been our transport, our friends, our beasts of burden, we've won wars on them," she said.

"They've very social animals and the emotional part of their brain is very large. But there's also a powerful element to them. They're not domestic like dogs or cats, they're born wild and have to be tamed. You have to earn their trust."

For some people who have come up against hardship, equine therapy may be just the thing to help them get back in the saddle of life.

      Winning Post

    •  Bode Miller (L) and Morgan Miller attend 140th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 3, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images)

      Ski star Miller plans new 'voodoo'

      He's won six Olympic medals on two legs, but Bode Miller's future will ride on four -- can he replicate his skiing success in the "Sport of Kings"?
    • Flanders Mud

      Ex-jockey molds new career

      As a jockey, Philip Blacker lived for the thrills and spills of horse racing. As a sculptor, his work captures the horror of World War I.
    • Zebra Mombassa in the English countryside, 1980s.

      Queen's 'horseman' tames zebras

      Ever thought zebras couldn't be tamed? Think again. Gary Witheford has a remarkable way with wild animals -- which he proved after a pub boast.
    • The ancient art of horse taming

      The internet went wild for so-called "horse yoga" -- but there was something deeper going on that reconnects humans with the animal world.
    • Runners canter before racing during the Laytown race meeting run on the beach on September 08, 2011 in Laytown, Ireland. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

      Quick sand: A race like no other

      The going is always soft and the only permanent building is a toilet block. It's the antithesis to the pomp of Royal Ascot ... welcome to Irish beach racing.
    • The Crow Fair and Rodeo takes place in Montana each summer.

      World's largest teepee city

      Each August, over a thousand tents and hundreds of horses converge on Little Big Horn River in Montana for the Crow Fair and Rodeo.
    • Rider Jon Marc goes for victory in the Indian Relay

      America's best sporting secret?

      Little-known outside the tribes of the Rocky Mountains in the American northwest, Indian Relay is a "magical" horse-racing relay.
    • Jockey Gary Stevens looks on after a race prior to the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2013 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

      'This is middle-aged crazy'

      Now in his 50s, one of the world's most successful jockeys explains why he gave up acting to return to the sport that nearly crippled him.
    •  An infrared camera was used to create this image.) A horse and exercise rider head to the main track for morning training at Belmont Park on June 4, 2014 in Elmont, New York.

      More rare than a moonwalk

      More people have walked on the moon than have won the fabled Triple Crown of U.S. horse racing. California Chrome is seeking to square that score.