Horsing About

October 1, 2018

Horsing About

Equine therapy has been found to have significant benefits for returned service veterans and people with autism and asperger’s syndrome and now, Dr Bindi Bennett is looking into how horses can assist in mental health, specifically with young indigenous Australians.

There are two things Dr Bindi Bennett is overtly passionate about – horses and helping people. Those close to her would argue that the former has grown to become an obsession, but through her many years spent with the gentle giants, she has discovered their true strengths in being able to heal people.

That is why the University of the Sunshine Coast researcher and social worker is spending four months in the United States as part of an Endeavour Research Fellowship, to learn from the leaders in equine-assisted therapy for mental health.

Starting in Durango in Colorado, Bindi will live on a working equine ranch, where they run the Four Corners Master of Social Work Program, and she is hoping to learn more about how their equine therapy programs are helping indigenous Americans complete university and how that could be tailored to help indigenous Australians.

“In Durango, they run equine therapy with their students, 17 per cent are first nation people because they’re at the four corners. They also have an animal assisted research centre where they not only do research about the horses but all sorts of animals and how they assist our lives as humans,” she says. 

“I’m very curious to see how we can utilise these programs or set up programs like this in Australia, and to find out how they’re evaluating their programs and measuring their success, especially with first nations people. I want to learn how they’re retaining their indigenous students using this type of program and how it’s affecting the people in the programs.

“The problem with equine research in the world is it’s still very novel and still in its infancy so there hasn’t been any robust research around it yet to show it can be reliable and we can do it again and again with the same results.

“Part of my going over there is finding out what makes a successful program, what could be replicated and bring it back to build on here.”

Horses in field

Bindi will also visit a few equine businesses which are owned and run by first nations people, before spending time at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, to find out what they’re researching, what they’re learning and how they’re applying that to the rest of the world, and how that would fit into Australian culture.

Equine therapy is structured on Gestalt therapy, which uses mindfulness and a focus on personal responsibility to build confidence and mental wellbeing.

It has been found that being with horses offers significant benefit for patients living with depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders, conduct disorders, dissociative disorders and other chronic mental health issues, and is increasingly used in a variety of social work contexts.

“One of the reasons we use horses is they’re a very large animal and a lot of people are scared of them, nervous around them, or unsure around them and when you can conquer those fears that gives people a sense of currency and courage,” says Bindi.

“Also, because horses are prey animals, they have to be very mindful and be in the moment; they react to our emotions very quickly, so if you go to a horse angry, they will react, if you go to a horse gently, the horse will react and you can form a very lovely relationship with a horse. It’s one thing to teach a dog to walk beside you, it’s another thing to teach a 350kg animal to walk beside you and people often watch me in the paddock with four horses walking with me and say, ‘How do you get them to do that?’ I don’t get them to do that, they choose to do that.

“Horses actually decrease our anxiety and heart rate when we’re near them, and they regulate our breathing, which helps us regulate our emotions and when we ride them, they give us a little zing of serotonin and dopamine, which makes us feel good and the riding helps our spine, our hips, our balance and increases our intelligence.”

Dr Bindi Bennett
Bindi with Pat Parelli

“Horses actually decrease our anxiety and heart rate when we’re near them, and they regulate our breathing, which helps us regulate our emotions and when we ride them, they give us a little zing of serotonin and dopamine, which makes us feel good and the riding helps our spine, our hips, our balance and increases our intelligence.”

Bindi has long had an affinity with horses. When she was a young girl in Canberra, the family living behind hers owned horses, and Bindi would climb the fence to sit on the horses and sometimes sleep on them.

“I ended up forming quite a bond with one of their horses and they ended up leaving that horse in our backyard and I would climb on and have a bit of a ride, but we never had the money for horses, they are very expensive creatures,” she says.

“Then when I met my partner, he had a horse and he was moving to Sydney just before the Olympics and had nowhere to keep it, so he asked me if I would look after his horse; that was my beginning of owning horses.”

Bindi’s latest project also draws on her 20 years as an Aboriginal mental health social worker, working predominantly with children and adolescents in schools and health facilities.

“There’s a large history of intergenerational trauma with Aboriginal families, so that’s when I started learning about trauma-based approaches and asking what it is about trauma (that affects people) and how we can start to try and fix it – I’m still trying to answer that question,” she says.

“We know that culture is very important and now I’m wondering if marrying culture with equine therapy could be a really good approach to looking at improving trauma. Most of the research is around working with post traumatic stress disorder with veterans and it’s been very successful, so why wouldn’t it be successful with other results of trauma?

“It’s also been very successful with people with autism or asperger’s, on that spectrum, PTSD and substance abuse. When you look at the Aboriginal community, it makes complete sense to bring that over and mix it with some traditional approaches and cultural thinking.”

Bindi will return to the Sunshine Coast in December, and aims to establish equine therapy programs locally, as well as hosting a range of symposiums to further educate on the topic and bring it to the fore of educational conversation.

Dr Bindi Bennett

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