Winston Churchill once said: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,”. However, Allan J. Hamilton, MD, Professor of Surgery at the University of Arizona, might add that there is also something inside the mind of a horse that is good for human beings. He has found that bringing cancer patients and their families together with horses can create life-changing experiences, and have both physical and psychological benefits.
Cancer patients undergo intense treatments and often long periods of inactivity which result in a loss of physical strength and muscle power. Horse-riding can gently improve strength, balance and coordination.
The benefits, however, reach far beyond the physical: not all patients will choose or be able to ride, yet they can benefit enormously from equine therapy. When they bond with and learn to trust horses through grooming, leading or handling, the fear and sense of powerlessness which often comes with a cancer diagnosis can be replaced with a feeling of control. Learning to handle a horse brings a feeling of pride in what the patient has achieved and results in improved confidence and self-esteem. Dr Hamilton says: “[Patients] can learn skills to help them be in control rather than out of control. They can be a participant, rather than a victim.”
The calming presence of a horse can reduce stress for a patient, and in their book, ‘Horse Sense and the Human Heart’, psychotherapists Adele and Marlena McCormick describe how horses read body language and are capable of remarkable responses to people: “Time and time again we have watched our horses offer simple gestures of comfort and affection.”
In addition, spending time with horses is a welcome distraction from the fears and stresses caused by living with cancer, as well as an opportunity for patients to spend time with people other than medical staff and so feel less isolated.
The whole family
It’s important to involve the family in the therapy because the whole family is affected by cancer. Young cancer patients who spent four days with horses at the Equine Assisted Therapy Retreat in Tucson, Arizona, together with their parents, tackled exercises with the horses designed to improve communication and coping skills. The course helped to improve the relationships between children and their parents, who are often targets for the children’s anxieties and frustrations and can become symbols of the treatment for the children. At the end of the course, parents said their children were more confident and had a more positive outlook on life.
And we must remember, a patient’s emotional well-being is vital to the outcome of their treatment.
Written by Sally Perkins