Finding healing in human-animal connection

Adela Talbot // Western News

Rebecca Brown, a London-based social worker who graduated from King’s University College with a BSW in 1986, works with three local farms in equine-assisted therapy.

Three decades into her career, Rebecca Brown feels she’s just getting started. Perhaps it is more fitting to say she is back at the start.

“I rode (horses) as a child, and for five years after university, my husband and I rented a farm north of London, and looked after horses. I have a comfort in being around horses and I’ve gone back to riding them at different times in my life when I was feeling most stressed,” said Brown, BSW’86 (King’s University College), a London-based social worker. “Inadvertently, I already knew that horses and animals were a wonderful way to relieve stress.”

In many ways, Brown has dedicated her career to helping individuals address and cope with stress. Working for the Children’s Aid Society (CAS), Brown spent more than 20 years working with some of the most vulnerable members of society. On top of her degree, she trained in a number of areas including trauma, stress management, crisis intervention and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). In 2014, she left CAS for private practice, health-and-wellness coaching and lifestyle medicine.

“My formative (working) years were all trauma-based. But it all sort of fits together; one thing connects to another,” she said.

“With work I did in PTSD, trauma and resilience, I got introduced to the fact horses are being used quite widely around the world in trauma therapy. And then I started with equine-assisted therapy. Looking at a career, how it starts, where it goes – it’s been incredible.”

And just like that, horses came back into her life.

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Brown connected with Elgin Equine Assisted Therapy in St. Thomas last winter and started working with individuals who came out of traditional talk therapy and wanted to try something different.

No one rides horses in equine-assisted therapy, she explained. Individuals pick a horse – who comes reign-free – and are encouraged to spend time with the animal while talking with a mental-health professional and equine specialist.

“Whatever it is that gets them to come out to us, they get introduced to working with horses. And all of a sudden, they’re just able to unpack all of this trauma that’s been there for a lifetime. Horses have an incredible way of helping to release and process that,” Brown noted. “Animals, but horses in particular, have an ability to pick up on someone’s emotional energy and mirror that. Horses are prey animals; they are very intuitive around fear, impulses and anxiety. It’s amazing to see them be calming for somebody.”

A social worker and equine specialist – an individual trained to gauge the horse’s behaviour – might ask a person with anxiety to put their hands on a horse, to look for its heartbeat and see if it is faster or slower than their own. They might ask the individual to try and get in sync with the horse’s breathing. Or they might participate in more tangible, metaphorical activities like using props and tools to illustrate one’s past, present or future, walking the horse through their lived experience.

“It becomes this amazing narrative story-telling that the horse becomes so involved in,” Brown added, noting it is a powerful and effective approach to therapy.

Word got out she was working in equine assisted therapy in St. Thomas. Before she knew it, she was getting phone calls and business offers. An equine specialist north of London asked her to partner in offering therapy. Brown is now working on a farm in Woodstock as well. She spends her week between farms in Elgin, Middlesex and Oxford counties, as well as her home office in London.

Equine-assisted therapy follows the EAGALA model – Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, Brown said. It is a recognized mode of therapy and involves both a mental health professional, such as a social worker, and an equine specialist who reads the horse’s body language. It is “neat, and there is evidence behind it,” Brown added.

“And that’s important to me as a social worker. I want to make sure this isn’t just fun and games and you spend time in a barn. This has a component of legitimate therapy. I’m a clinical social worker first, who happens to work with horses. This isn’t just someone who brings in horses – you have to be able to help someone out,” she continued.

“Never would I have thought I would have graduated with a degree in social work, that it would open up all these incredible opportunities to practice social work in all of these neat ways.”