Brigitte Kunz Göldi
Animal-assisted therapy - what exactly is it? Who benefits from it, how does it offer support? My therapy team includes the Freeberger mares Lady and Calia, as well as the poodle Jasco. The animal-assisted therapy I offer aims at teenagers and adults with mental impairments such as burnout, depression, trauma or anxiety disorder. Therapy with animals can be used as a complementary therapy to psychotherapy.
With animal-assisted therapy, the focus is on the contact with the horse or dog, with oneself and with nature. Animals offer many possibilities. When patients "work" with animals, this process (even preventively) has a health-promoting effect. Contact with animals reduces especially anxieties and stress. It also influences the own self-image in a positive way.
With the two trained horses or my therapy dog, I accompany patients who want to experience this special way. Animals don’t judge, they are very sensitive and open towards humans.
Building relationships with animals
Our animal-assisted therapy is divided into different phases. In the beginning, I help the patient to build a relationship with the horse and/or the dog. It is important to know how to deal with animals and to understand their behaviour in certain situations. One part also concerns the understanding and interpretation of the animals’ body language.
While walking, we observe the animals, perceive their behaviour and needs, caress them, talk to them, give them orders, interact with them. This way, we build trust and reduce our own fears.
This phase is followed by the deepening in which I respond (goal-oriented) individually to the needs of the patients. Every hour, I design individually, there is no scheme apart from the welcoming and grooming of Lady or Calia at the beginning of the therapy with horses. At the end, we say good bye to them. This last phase is very important, since the patients have established a relationship with the respective animal. I like to give them a lot of space to say goodbye to Lady, Calia or even Jasco..
Suggestions and inputs
My poodle is lively, playful, attentive and loves to cuddle. Often, patients choose him if they have grown up with dogs themselves or currently have a dog at home and have had pleasant experiences with dogs. I suggest different exercises, which they then test in their own rhythm. In doing so, I support the patients and motivate them to reflect on the common activity in order to get a better idea of their actions.
During the sessions, I make suggestions to the patients or give them input for exercises. Some patients are reluctant at the beginning, sometimes a little anxious, and hardly dare to touch the animal. Over time, this changes a lot. I have often observed at our final ritual that the patients lovingly hug the horse.
Horses hold the mirror in front of us
Horses, including Lady and Calia, hold a mirror in front of us – that way, patients become aware of themselves. Horses understand us humans much better than vice versa. They are able to interpret the finest signs of body language. Are you anxious? Are you a daredevil? Are they on top of their lives, or not? How direct is one, how shy, how insecure? For example, if the client is nervous, the horse reacts accordingly.
The horse always demands clarity, it wants clear instructions. If someone is unsure, the horse doesn't know what the person wants from him. That way, patients learn to communicate their wishes clearly. This shows me again and again that the contact to the horses also gives the patients more confidence.
Sometimes, we work on the lead from the back of the horse, sometimes from the ground. We do perceptual, concentration and coordination exercises, as well as confidence and relaxation exercises. Thus, the horse becomes a real partner. The warmth and movement of the horse soothingly appeals to the emotional area of the patients. These can be very valuable experiences. The processing of negative experiences can also be supported.
Many beautiful moments
I always make sure that our therapy hours are animal- and human-friendly. It is very important that everyone involved is always looked after. This is how my patients and I experience many little and beautiful moments in nature during animal-assisted therapies.
Many people become aware of what was buried in them during animal-assisted therapy. People show that they still have many resources, despite the impairment. These are beautiful and often even healing experiences for all of us. What counts for me in the therapy is always the human being and not a diagnosis. I am happy when patients sometimes succeed in implementing the experiences they had in the equestrian therapy to their everyday lives.
After completing a therapy session, the respective wards receive my therapy report. On request, or if necessary, I also exchange information with the treating psychiatrist.