• Creating a Community Where Everyone Belongs

My Life Blog – Caroline Tomlinson: ‘How we’re using Equine Guided Learning to help people get back in the saddle after lockdown’

I think everyone would agree that the last year or so has been relentless. Whether it’s been furlough or front-line work, parenting or working from home (often at the same time!), we’ve had to take on almost a war-time mentality, putting everything into every day. And often having to do so while feeling isolated and lonely. It’s been tough, hasn’t it, and what became really obvious to me is that a lot of the heavy lifting of this pandemic has been left to women – not exclusively of course, but overwhelmingly the stories I hear are from a female perspective.

I’m not sure that people will fully realise that their mental health has been severely affected until they begin to emerge into some sort of normality, and I certainly felt over the last few months that it will be really important for us to discover ourselves, get in touch with ourselves and most importantly do something for ourselves again. Which was when I realised that the horses and ponies at My Life’s inspiring equestrian centre in Standish could help.

In America, they’ve done a lot of work around equine facilitated learning and equine assisted therapy, and we’ve brought some of those lessons into the work with My Life members. It makes a lot of sense; you use a horse as a sensory experience, a means by which to understand your own emotions and behaviour, and sometimes as a conduit by which to communicate and build rapport.

Horses are also herd animals, like us, so it felt to me that as lockdown eased there was a way in which we could bring a small group of women together with the intention of reconnecting them with life, and building self-esteem and confidence through shared experiences with our horses. To be quite honest, I think we’ve also all learned that life’s too short to miss out on doing something you’ve always loved but not had time for – or really wanted to do. My experience, of course, is working with lots of families who’ve had struggles around loved ones with a disability. Really, the end goal is the same for us all – to have what we consider a good life, doing stuff that we enjoy.

So we called the course Getting Back In The Saddle: Empowerment through Equine Guided Learning and three weeks in, it’s been an emotional, instructive and often hilarious ride. Not that we have done loads of riding actually; this is more about engaging with animals and people. In the first session, before we even went near a horse, we stood in an open field and listened to the noises of the countryside. We then lay down in that field. It probably looked really strange. But in that moment of quiet mindfulness, I think we all realised we haven’t had a single moment to be with ourselves in the last year.

When we did introduce the horses, it was like I’d sat Cloud and Magic in a room beforehand and briefed them about how I needed them to behave. As each person led a horse in the arena, Cloud and Magic reflected their mood. So people who were anxious, or in a low mood saw that come out in the horse, even if they hadn’t fully processed their emotions themselves. It was like looking in a mirror.

Over lunch from our Stable Door Cafe – another thing everyone enjoyed was having someone’s else’s food for the first time in ages! – we talked. And it all came out. A woman who worked so hard for the NHS through the pandemic got pretty emotional when she realised that she’d waited 30 years to do something like this for herself. A woman who’d run a care home in a pandemic – you could see on her face the pressure she’d been under – revealed she needed to be able to get in touch with herself and others outside of that environment. Nearly everyone agreed they didn’t realise the heaviness of the weight they’d carried until they started to hear these stories from other people – it gave them the confidence to work through their emotions, where they might otherwise have crashed and burned out.

Which makes the five-week course sound quite heavy, but the next week, we started out by riding hobby horses rather than actual horses. They did the walk, the trot, they all went back to being kids again – and there was so much laughter. Being playful, being able to laugh at yourself and with others is so important for mental health.

Later, we started introducing them to two new ponies, too, which was all about building mutual trust, understanding the power of your responses. And we talked about how those responses and behaviours are so crucial in your interactions with others.

Which ultimately emphasised to me again the importance of our environment at Standish to the people we support. One woman we were helping to transition from a secure environment to her own home built the rapport with her team by using the horses here as a ‘common third’ to develop trust. In fact, we actually did some additional equine assisted learning with her team members so they could appreciate how their thoughts, feelings and behaviours impacted on how the horse felt; once they understood how an animal reacts, it became obvious to them how they needed to act around someone who they were caring for. We’re beginning to use the horses as part of staff development and training in this way.

I’m reminded of Kieran, too, who was also transitioning from a secure environment to living in his own home with support. He’d had a love of horses before he ended up in residential care, and the natural conversation we had as he trotted around Standish on horseback gave me the confidence that we would be able to help a young man that everyone else had written off.

All I’d seen in reports was what he couldn’t do, rather than what he enjoyed. Within a couple of hours with the horse, I saw an empathetic, gentle and kind character – which might otherwise have taken months to tease out. I was able to work out the make up of his team, who would be best at supporting him. He’s now thriving. All because of a horse ride.

So yes, sometimes positive change can come with a change of environment, a new experience. But it also comes when people are empowered to put themselves at the centre of their emotional, physical and mental health needs. At My Life, our motto is creating a community where everybody belongs. Grooming these horses together, letting the power of our emotions flow as a group and ultimately helping people on the road back to living their best lives, feels great.

Caroline Tomlinson, My Life Founder and Chief Executive Officer

To find out more about our Equine Guided Learning sessions for groups and individuals please contact us on 01257 472 900, or email info@my-life.org.uk for more details.

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