Equine assisted psychotherapist Michaela Slade from Somerset, teams up with the ponies at Mini Munchkins Miniature Shetland Rescue centre near Colyton, East Devon, to deliver horse-led therapy, with profound effects…
Michaela knows horses, but horses know us better. Indeed, so tuned-in are our equestrian friends, they can help heal us. The Somerset mum-of-one and trained counsellor has been practising equine facilitated therapy for about a year now and has seen how horses and ponies can connect with humans on a subconscious, energy level, and make us better.
“I had a gentleman client who was feeling incredible isolated – he had been all through his life, both emotionally and physically, he had no one show him affection,” the 37-year-old tells me from her home in Crewkerne. “So when he came to see me, I started off with a simple exercise that involved just spending some time with a pony in its field. We’d only being doing the exercise for a couple of minutes when a pony walked over and put its head on the man’s chest. He just burst into tears. It was absolutely beautiful to watch.”
Michaela says she’s had clients who, after being with the horses, have felt comfortable to disclose often traumatic things they’ve kept bottled up, for the first time in their lives.
“I worked with a young girl who has extreme behavioural difficulties,” she continues. “Her life is through the roof at the moment, really difficult. She has very high energy and a lot of anger, but finally, after four sessions, she made contact with the horse and just sat for ages, plaiting its mane. It sounds so simple, but this was a massive deal for her; the horse knew she needed to relax, and she needed to bring her energy levels down so this connection could happen, so it just lay on its side in its stable to allow her to do this.”
And there are times when the horses guide Michaela too. “I was working with a lady recently, and when I started to do an exercise with her, I immediately felt like it was one too many and perhaps we should take a break,” she recalls. “But I needn’t have worried, because the horse was doing absolutely nothing. I asked the lady what she was feeling, and she said she felt the horse wanted her to relax. So the horses know what to do – they even put my mistakes right!”
Michaela is a trained counsellor, youth worker and Reiki practitioner. And with her enduring love of horses, becoming an equine assisted psychotherapist was a natural next step.
Equine facilitated therapy is based on the principles of Native American horsemanship – that man and horse are equal and should work together in partnership.
I ask Michaela to explain how it is that a horse, which she describes as an entirely non-judgemental animal, can heal a human; she tells me that the equine facilitated therapy requires self-development in order for a connection with the horse to be possible, and the horses know what emotions we need to modify in order for us to heal.
Communication between man and horse happens on an energy level, which actually, is not hippy at all, but scientific: according to quantum physicists, everything is made up of energy; we are electromagnetic beings and give off and pick up on energy vibrations when we interact, and horses, as incredibly sensitive beings, can pick up on energy vibrations better than we humans can. Michaela explains: “A horse will often play out what’s in your subconscious, which a lot of the time it is something you’re not even aware of, so you could be with the horse and it will be able to sense an emotion that you haven’t dealt with and need to, like anger,” she explains. “We store our emotions in our bodies; people think our minds and bodies are separate but they’re not at all – when you feel happy or sad, you can feel it in your stomach, or tense your jaw for example. Often we’re not aware of the physical signs, but you’re emitting that energy. Horses communicate on an energy level so will pick up on these emotions. Horses are prey animals, so this energy-sensing is part of their self-defence mechanism, for example, zebras and lions will drink alongside each other because they can sense the intention of the lions; they can be near one another quite happily until the lion decides he’s hungry and his intentions change, so the zebras take flight.
“Horses are ideal for this type of therapy because of their sensitivity,” she continues. “When I walk into the field where my horse is with the intention of, ‘I’m coming to get you’, she’ll run away. But when I go in just to do other things, often she’ll come over to me.
“It’s called equine facilitated therapy because the horse facilitates the session,” Michaela adds. “Sometimes I’ll go in with my own agenda, but the horse knows what is needed. It really is incredible.”
The practise can promote healing of various issues; Michaela has worked with people with anxiety, depression, addiction, learning and behavioural difficulties, autism, trauma and eating disorders. And the therapy can help people build trust, develop communication, manage their anxiety levels and moderate their emotions. Healing can occur on a psychological, emotional and spiritual level.
Working predominantly with young people with emotional and behavioural issues, Michaela has hopes to introduce the therapy to the older generation to assist with emotional and mental health issues, and in particular the onset of early dementia.
Michaela currently works with the ponies at the Mini Munchkins Shetland Rescue centre in the rolling pastures boarding the pretty town of Colyton, East Devon. The centre was set up in 2014 and obtained charity status last year and a percentage of the fee for a session, goes to the centre.
There are deeply personal reasons underpinning Michaela’s decision to turn to counselling and therapy as a career, having experienced a deeply upsetting time in her own life: when she was just 16, after a family breakdown, with only the clothes she was standing in, she found herself alone, and having to move in to a bedsit near Yeovil, surviving on £38 a week. But after working as a carer for the elderly and a chef in local pubs, an inherent desire to help others – “I was always the one to stand up to the bullies at school” – gave her the focus to pay her way through A-levels and a course at Bristol University to qualify as a counsellor.
“Finding myself on my own at 16, was a very difficult time of my life,” she says. “But I wouldn’t change a thing about it because it was part of the journey to get here. And it’s been worth it to be in a position to help other people.”
As for horses, Michaela, who has shared ownership of a 20-year-old cob called Poppet, has always adored them.
“I can remember when I was a kid,” she continues. “Every time I blew a dandelion clock and made a wish, it was always to have my own horse. I would play games in my garden, cantering around on my imaginary horse for hours and hours. I would take every opportunity to be around horses, and my life’s ambition was to have my own horse.”
A predominant strand of her work is nature, and she is quick to laud its benefits. “Nature, and being with the ponies in their natural environment, plays a huge part in the therapy,” she says. “The key element is really being fully present in nature and fully experiencing it, not thinking about the pile of washing you have to do! Anyone can go and take the dog for a walk in the woods and feel better because it’s peaceful and they’re in the fresh air, but that’s not really taking in your surroundings.
“Our lives have become disconnected from nature, when actually we’re part of the wider eco-system. If we all spent more time in nature, I think we’d feel a lot better.”