One of the first things I was ever told about my daughter was that she loves animals. Within days of coming to live with me aged 5, she was riding a friend’s miniature Shetland pony, Dennis. I work for AUK these days, but I had an interim career as a riding instructor and I joined the Board of an equine therapy organisation last year.

Dennis was a legend, but he was about the size of a large dog. Over the years, we rode other people’s horses when we could and shelled out for costly beach rides on holiday. Just before the pandemic we decided to look for a horse to loan. After a bit of searching and asking around, we found Justin.

Like lots of adopted children, my daughter struggles with relationships and is often lonely. By the time we met Justin, she was a teenager and didn’t want much to do with me. She was very angry a lot of the time. She was theoretically up for spending time at the stables, but it was almost always difficult getting her there. Sometimes she would flatly refuse to come and I’d head off by myself, fuming. Mostly she complained about not being allowed to lie on her bed and stare at her phone. Often we would get in the car in a Mexican stand-off.

But usually, once we got to the stables it all fell away. And sometimes, she would take my hand as we walked from the carpark to the horses. Even thinking about being with them was soothing.

Justin was a complete leveller. He was without judgement, but he had opinions. If she came to him in an angry mess, you’d sense him saying: ‘Park all that for a while. Just be with me.’ He needed mucking out, grooming, feeding, and when he damaged a tendon, hosing down with cold water for half an hour at a time. He was a gentle soul, but he wasn’t a pushover. The first time he bolted with her in an open field was, for her, completely thrilling (less so for me).

Remarkably, given our dreadful history with homework, she let me teach her. It was rewarding and hilarious, and mostly made us both feel good about ourselves.

Around horses my daughter is without fear, but respectful. For her, horses allow her to be her most grounded, calm, trusting and open self. And it was this relationship that led me to become a trustee of the Equine Therapy Center.

Though I could see how powerful it was for my own child to be around horses, I knew very little about what happens in equine facilitated therapy. Therapeutic work at the Equine Therapy Center is grounded in neuroscience. There is growing evidence of its transformative impact in the lives of some of society’s most vulnerable people. Thousands of people who have never been close to a horse – including many who were terrified of doing so – have changed their lives with the help of equine facilitated therapy.

Nicky, who runs the Equine Therapy Center, speaks movingly about the clients she has helped, many of whom are care experienced. “Maddie (not her real name) was 13 when she started coming to ETC. She was abused and neglected in early childhood, removed into care and later adopted. Understandably, Maddie was an angry girl with deep attachment issues. When she was referred she had just been diagnosed with a life threatening illness, she was in denial, refusing to accept the diagnosis and said she didn’t care whether she died.

“Equine therapy gives you a quicker rapport with the client because the client sense the trust that the horse places in the therapist. If these huge beings trust you, you must be trustworthy. Also, when you have a horse in the mix takes the focus and hence the pressure off the person. This was the only support Maddie was prepared to accept. Jack, the horse who worked with Maddie over many months, allowed her to access the help she needed, to understand and regulate her emotions, and start to trust people. She’s now at university and has a good friendship group.”

The Adoption Support Fund in England does not fund equine facilitated therapy at the moment, though many of us think it should. Fortunately, there are increasing numbers of social workers across the UK who have witnessed the benefits of therapeutic work with horses and are making it available to adopted children and young people.

For more information, take a look at these websites:

Alison Woodhead, Director of Public Affairs and Communications