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Health: stronger in body and mind thanks to horses

2 November 2023

« There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man ».
Winston Churchill's quote may seem like a cliché to some people, but in fact a truer word has never been spoken. And that was precisely the message delivered by the speakers at the conference entitled «Le cheval, ce partenaire qui nous rend plus fort» (Horses; the partners that makes us stronger), organised on Wednesday 1 November by Equiaction – the endowment fund of the French Equestrian Federation – in the VIP Village at Longines Equita Lyon Concours international. Doctors, sophrologists and managers of associations were among the numerous speakers who came to share their testimonies about the exceptional benefits of the relationships that can exist between people and horses. 

«Horses help you to refocus on yourself and bring you back into the present moment,» explains Arnaud Ahayert, the director of a sophrology school. Nathalie Frilley, founder of the organisation «A cheval sur soi», which promotes assisted therapeutic support, goes even further. «To become stronger, you need to know who you are. And knowing yourself also means understanding your flaws, weaknesses and problems. Being in contact with horses and the way they move can help bring difficult emotions to the surface, so we can address them. We can then start to express these feelings in words, and that enables us to move forward». In this specialist's view, horses naturally tend to «calm emotions and reduce stress levels».

«Horses have an amazing ability to generate a sense of well-being,» says Marie-Ange Leoponthe, director of the Ligue contre le Cancer de Gironde, which is developing equine therapy for cancer patients, both during and after their treatment. Camille, a young woman of 30, who discovered she had cancer a year ago, has benefited greatly from this approach. «I used to be quite sporty, but when I was undergoing chemotherapy  treatment I couldn't run any more. But I still needed to have activities that got me out of the house. I needed to get away from this vision of my ultra-medicated body, and I had this desire that I, myself, could be involved in looking after someone else.» And that is precisely what this young woman, who had no previous experience of working with horses, found in equine therapy. «The relationship focuses on him and not on me. Physically, I realised that I could do actually still something. And it makes you feel proud!» explains Camille, with a big smile.

Body and mind

The combination of these physical, psychological and emotional aspects is shared in the approach used by Céline Scrittori, founder of the Arc-en-ciel (Rainbow) method, which organises equine therapy sessions in hospitals and pony clubs aimed at children with cancer: «The aim is to act on several levels, on the mind, the heart and the body.»

Indeed, taking action at every level is whole point and objective of promoting this relationship between people and horses. In the opinion of Sophie Cha, a sports doctor and advisor to Jeunesse et Sports (Youth and Sports) office of the Brittany regional council, horses can play a role in helping people learn how to become active in their lives again, and not just by riding the horses.
«Today, a third of the population is unable to reach the target of 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day recommended by the WHO. We need to find suitable activities, and that could also come through de-constructing the image of horse riding», says the doctor. In her view, the simple act of fetching a horse from the pasture, grooming it or walking with it on the halter already represents enough physical activity for a population whose increasingly sedentary lifestyle has become one of the main factors in mortality in society. Sophie Cha is calling for a new approach to horse-riding to be included in the national health-through-sport schemes. This is also a goal that the French Equestrian Federation wishes to pursue, by promoting the development of adapted equestrian activities, whether on foot, in the saddle or with a carriage.   

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