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‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,’ is one of the enormous catalogue of quotes from Winston Churchill.
The therapeutic benefits of being around animals is well known from the calming effect of curling up with a pet cat or dog to trained animal therapy visits to hospitals and care homes.
The connection with another living creature, the need for non-verbal communication and tuning into body language and behavioural cues instead of words offers opportunities for us to not just boost our mental health and wellbeing but also to learn from animals too.
Ardnamurchan resident Nicky Ross considers her small herd of Shetland ponies to be part of her family.
The ponies get involved in daily life, walks to the beach or the wood or a trip to the
local Salen Jetty Shop where they help bring home the shopping.
Nicky explained: ‘Being around horses, caring for them, walking with them or simply watching them provides a huge array of mental health benefits.
‘Horses as a species mostly communicate silently, using subtle body language such as blinking, head, ear and tail movements.
‘Being around horses and observing these behaviours can really give you an opportunity to focus on another being – we can’t ask what they are thinking or why, we can only watch and try and understand.
‘That in turn can help to still your mind and calm you down.’
Qualified Equine behaviourist Nicky runs Horse Play sessions for groups of adults and children as well as one to one sessions and finds that along with learning about horses – from practical horse care to horse behaviour – participants also learn about themselves.
She added: ‘The focus on how horses communicate, along with the non judgmental nature of horses allow people to work on issues such as assertiveness, confidence, developing and maintaining relationships, emotional awareness, empathy, impulse control, problem-solving skills, social skills, trust in others and in themselves.’
As anyone who has spent time observing animals interact with each other will know the politics and social structure of groups of creatures is endlessly fascinating.
From the pecking order at the bird feeder to the establishing of pack hierarchy of dogs in the park in real life to wildlife documentaries on TV. We often spot similarities to humans and how we engage with each other.
Nicky told me: ‘Horses are very much a herd animal and are acutely aware of those
around them. Foals learn to walk in time with their mothers and an entire herd will move at the pace of the slowest member.
‘If you were to watch a moving herd from above it would show the same pattern as a shoal of fish or flock of birds, all moving, turning and slowing as one unit.
‘A recent study showed that in a controlled environment horses will always go to the person with the lowest heart rate.
‘If we look at this in a therapeutic setting this offers a beautiful mirror into
our own internal state.’
There is no doubt that whether we are observing, interacting with or just in the company of animals there is a lot to be gained in terms of our mental wellbeing.
Feeding the birds, stroking a cat or playing with a dog, or more structured animal therapy are all worth considering to lower your stress levels or learn more about how we can take wellness tips from the animals around us.