We might laugh about cafes where, whilst sipping on Earl Grey, you can pet a cat, snuggle with a hedgehog, or spend quality time with sheep. But animal therapy…it’s genuinely a thing.
The special bond between humans and animals dates as far back as prehistoric times, when the dog is thought to have first been domesticated. For millennia animals have been trained for working purposes, but there has long been more to our relationship with animals than mere functionality. The practice of keeping animals as pets has, up to the present day, been a part of nearly every culture and society throughout the world. As though it’s something that goes to the very core of our being.
When it comes to connection, animals are some of our best teachers. They have an ability to bring us out of our shells, and have been thought to positively influence our relationships with other humans. Animals also provide us with a huge source of comfort and companionship, and can have a profoundly relaxing and calming influence on our daily lives. For these reasons they have been thought to reduce anxiety and stress, and to help people living with, amongst other things, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and loneliness to live mentally healthier lives. Countless animals, whether working as official support animals or otherwise, have changed the lives of their human companions, even saved them.
Growing up I had two dogs and I spent much of my spare time riding horses at a local stables. Our dogs sadly passed away, and new chapters of my life took me to university and a job in London so horse riding became a thing of the past. I don’t think I fully appreciated what my four legged friends did for my mental health at the time, but I certainly missed them and their impact on my life when they were no longer a part of it. When I struggled with my mental health a few years ago I found myself reflecting on the time I spent with dogs and horses as a child, and wondered whether I was in need of a bit of animal therapy.
Sadly my life in a garden-less flat in London isn’t particularly conducive to owning a dog, so I had to seek out the next best thing. From time to time I would borrow my sister’s dog Olive, and take her for walks that would not only clear my head but also provide me with the kind of unconditional love and lack of judgement that I craved. A day spent with Olive was never a bad day, and I owe her much more than the long walks and dog treats that I gave her. Although she did get some rather luxurious dog shampoo out of it too.
l hadn’t sat on a horse for the best part of 17 years, and wondered if it was possible to gain anything except fear and apprehension from getting back in the saddle. I nervously booked myself onto a ride at the start of 2017, which could’ve gone one of two ways. But being around horses again instantly brought me a sense of calm, and an unspoken connection and understanding that can be hard to find in our daily lives.
Horses are now a huge part of my life, and have taken me to some incredible places. I’ve ridden them through the Welsh hills, raced them across the Mongolian steppe, had jaw dropping game sightings from horseback in South Africa, and most recently been immensely privileged to spend four months working with them at Estancia Los Potreros in Argentina. They’ve brought smiles to my face, and caused tears of joy to run from my eyes as I’ve galloped into the wind leaving behind the things that are weighing me down. They’ve known when I’m sad or when I’m heartbroken, and when I need them to just be there. They’ve taught me to listen to them, to trust their judgement, and to know when to listen to myself and to trust my own. And they’ve allowed me to get outdoors, to breathe in lungfuls of fresh country air, and to meet new friends from all over the world. I’m indebted to every single one of them all.
Whether it’s horses or dogs, cats or birds, hedgehogs or sheep, there are easy ways that you can incorporate animals into your life. If you don’t own a dog or cat, why not ask around and see if friends or family, or maybe even someone in your neighbourhood, needs help with theirs. Why not sit in the garden and admire the birds, or head to your local park or nature reserve. City and country farms are also a great place to spend time with animals and to connect with nature. Or you could sit in a cafe and stroke a cat, hedgehog or sheep while you drink a cup of Earl Grey.