The Healing Powers of Pooches and Ponies

Cantering around the silage fields yesterday afternoon, my little mare was bucking and shrieking with the sheer delight of being out in the sunshine, cantering alongside one of her friends. Much like laughter, her joy was infectious. I was reminded of Churchill’s words of wisdom, ‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man’.

I’m sure many will appreciate that an exhilarating canter through the woods can lift a mental fog, but even a steady hack around the village allows the mind time to breathe and reset. Even their smell, it seems, is akin to an olfactory hug. A young vet had been called to the farm last week to treat a cow, and as we exchanged pleasantries, she exclaimed in her broad Isish accent, ‘God I miss the smell of horses. Such a beautiful, homely smell’. I knew exactly what the vet had meant: it’s a sweet, musty smell that is instantly recognisable, and incited in me a wave of nostalgic pleasure when I caught a whiff after a few weeks away from home in Shanghai.

It got me thinking of how lucky we are in the countryside to be able to enjoy such simple pleasures – especially in these strange times – and of the power a horse holds to heal both human body and soul. Michael Morpurgo famously stated in a Radio 4 interview with Fi Glover in 2010 that he once found a boy that, according to his teachers, “doesn’t speak”, talking with a horse.

There he was, Billy, standing in his slippers by the stable door and the lantern above his head, talking. Talking, talking, talking, to the horse. And the horse, Hebe, had her head just over the top of the stable, and she was listening; that’s what I noticed, that the ears were going, and I knew she knew that she had to stay there whilst this went on, because this kid wanted to talk, and the horse wanted to listen“.

This incident played a significant part in the conception of possibly his most famous work of fiction, War Horse. I first heard this clip when I was teaching the novel. It stayed with me, not because of the effect it had had on Morpurgo, or indeed on Billy. It was because I could clearly identify with his ability to confide in Hebe, without fear of judgement, of reproach, of betrayal. It’s probably one a few of you reading can identify with, too.

Of course, neither Morpurgo nor Churchill were the first to notice a horse’s therapeutic benefits. Far from it. In fact, hippotherapy – the therapy of physical conditions through riding – has its etymological roots in the ancient Greek term for horse, hippos. Hippocrates, a Greek physician of the age of Pericles, even wrote about it. If its longevity as a concept isn’t sufficient evidence of its success, you only need look at the sustained popularity of Riding for the Disabled Association, an organisation that has helped thousands to deal with, and sometimes overcome, the effects disability since its formation in the 1960s.

Of course, it doesn’t stop at horses. Across the globe, the healing powers of animals is widely reported, celebrated and utilised.

Being in the presence of perhaps the most over-enthusiastic, yappy and persistently naughty little dog in the entire history of canines probably doesn’t sound like therapy. But for me, it is. Betty never fails to make me smile with her antics, her irrepressible enthusiasm for ball games, her wonky gait and her silly mannerisms. For example, if you found Betty unravelling your mother’s knitting, yarn tangled round every one of her limbs as well as every chair-leg in the room, I guarantee you would laugh, too. This morning, she had inserted herself in a box designed to hold horse equipment outside the stables. It was purely a bid for attention, and to her credit, her efforts were sufficiently amusing to gain the audience she desired.

Yet for all her yappy indiscretions, she is loving, affectionate, and most importantly, resolutely loyal. As such, she has soothed my own anxieties on several occasions. Similarly, when I was injured last autumn, I found that I couldn’t sleep with pain from my neck. She remained beside me, shuffling patiently behind me as I tried the spare bed, the sofa, another sofa, the chair. Once vaguely comfortable, I found that if I quietly stroked her until my body became tired and the pain eased, I would, eventually, find respite in sleep.

For me, this is a reminder of perhaps the most poingnant of a pet’s power: the ability to provide companionship during adversity, satisfying both our needs for love and our need to give love. At times such as these, where we are confined to our own homes, I’m sure there are unimaginable numbers of dogs – and probably cats – across the globe warding off the ill effects of loneliness in their human companions. In fact, I spotted a ‘wanted’ advertisment for a cat a few days ago on Facebook. Looking back, how revealing such an appeal was from an older lady living alone. Suddenly, the crazy-cat-lady jokes have lost their flavour!

Right now, she’s lying on my feet. Tonight she can have an extra biscuit, and if you’ve a pet curled up with you, hand them one, too.

Betty, up to mischief in a bid get my attention once again.

The world from between two ears always looks brighter.

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