The horse as healer: A gentle nudge back to health

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ARGENTINA • When Ms Maria de los Angeles Kalbermatter lost her leg at age 27, she began to rehabilitate herself through horse riding, an unprecedented choice. Not only did she find emotional healing, she also began to impart that experience to children with different illnesses.

"The only people who believed in this were those who loved horses," she said. Today, however, more than three decades after Ms de los Angeles founded the first equine therapy school in Latin America, more than 250 centres throughout Argentina practise it.

This therapeutic method seeks, through the use of horses, to aid the rehabilitation of illnesses involving physical or psychological disabilities.

"Equine therapy is based on three basic principles: the transmission of body heat, rhythmic pulses and a pattern of movement equivalent to that of the human gait. The horse is a being capable of healing through both emotion and body language, and serves as a mirror to the human soul," said Ms Julieta Malleville, director of the La Paloma School of Equine Therapy, in the city of Tandil.

The horses used for therapy are either criollo (creole) or crossbred horses that are no taller than 1.6m and aged between eight and 15. They must be docile by nature, which gives therapists and patients the total confidence required in order to work with and trust them.

In the last 15 years, equine therapy has evolved and been used to help diseases such as stress, depression, phobias, addictions, obsessive-compulsive disorders and eating disorders.

The psychotherapy sessions are mostly performed next to, not on top of, the horse, so it is not necessary to have previous experience of riding.

Physician Veronica Settepassi, who has worked for 15 years at the Hipocampo Equine Therapy School in the Palermo neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, said equine therapy helps people to control their fears and connect with the environment.

"The movement of the horse reconciles the person with their body, it makes them feel good. I had cases of people with depression and eating disorders that showed very rapid improvements," she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2017, with the headline The horse as healer: A gentle nudge back to health. Subscribe