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Horses as therapists against depression and burnout

by Maria Filimonenko
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More and more people are suffering from mental illnesses. Burnout and depression in particular are on the rise. Psychologist Sarah Kässens helps sufferers – and has some really good helpers. 

At the age of nine, Sarah Kässens got on a horse for the first time. “Since then, the horse virus has caught me,” she says with a laugh. But she had no idea at the time that horses would also play an important role in her professional life. 

Yet horses have always been a big part of her life. “I vaulted first, even a bit as a competitive sport. Then I learned to ride, but remained dedicated to vaulting as a trainer.” For her, however, horses have always been more than a piece of sports equipment: “They are first and foremost a friend.” Early on, the now 39-year-old understood that “horses have a therapeutic effect – whether you like it or not,” she says with a laugh. “They calm us down, hold up a mirror to us.”

Psychology and horses – the perfect combination

“I studied business administration after graduating from high school, but that wasn’t really my thing. That’s why I started studying psychology afterwards.” Initially, it was not planned that she would use this knowledge for her career. But when she started with psychology studies, that’s when the idea came along. “Back then I already thought: horses are therapists on four hooves. It would be perfect if I could combine that with my knowledge.”

Sarah relies on animal help for burnout or depression. What’s the effect? “Priceless! Because people who have burnout or are on the verge of it often have tunnel vision. They only see a mountain of problems and no longer know how to cope with them. For them, it’s important to be able to broaden their perspective for once.” And that’s exactly what horses are ideal for. “I let them stand next to the horse, just say ‘Feel that warm coat, feel how it breathes.’ And the horse does the rest.”

When those affected get involved with the horse, they open their eyes. They feel something new, and finally notice something around them as well, Kässens explains. “Many have already said, ‘When I feel the horse, it gives me strength.’ The goal then is for them to be able to take that feeling with them.”

More and more depressions are being diagnosed

At the same time, Kässens emphasises, horses cannot perform miracles. “In the case of moderate or severe depression, psychotherapeutic treatment is the first measure. But horses can accompany this in a supportive way.” That’s because depressed people live even more with tunnel vision. “They have no drive, have nothing to look forward to.”

Unfortunately, the number is growing: According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the number of cases of depression and anxiety disorders has risen by 25 percent in just one year. Yet it can affect anyone: the housewife who wears herself out for the family and the boss who has to make tough decisions, says the psychologist.

5 helpers of Sarah Kässens 

That’s why it’s so important for sufferers to “just have a nice time again. And through the horse, I can create a moment of joy,” says Kässens. Horses don’t have a lot of issues that people have – prejudices, for example. And they live in the here and now, don’t worry about tomorrow, are only interested in the moment. That’s what people feel and it is a big eye-opener for them.” At the same time, it’s important that she has solid training as a psychologist, she says, because through the horses, sometimes issues are stirred up that have been buried for a long time. That’s where I have to be in the long haul to bring people back, according to Sarah.

She relies on five animal helpers for her work. One of them is Salem (15), a German sport horse, 1.73 metres in height. Mare Ente (14), an Austrian warmblood. Gelding Charlie (10), an Irish Tinker, with whom you can do anything. Pony mix Luna (17) mainly helps the children. And mini-shetty Loui (10) is a little secret weapon: “Whoever comes to me sees him and Luna first. Most of them then think, ‘He’s so cute’ – and the first ice is broken.”

Those who come to her with burnout or depression get to choose “their” horse. That’s always exciting, what they think fits them. Or what they want that fits them. Her clients are not primarily equestrians. On the contrary, most are people who have never had anything to do with horses, but like them. And that is definitely an advantage, Kässens thinks: With them, the wow effect is greater. Riders know, or at least suspect, that horses mirror their souls.

In addition, horses make people courageous. By their side, people can develop new goals, and also implement their own ideas. And by doing so, they also outgrow themselves: There’s the well-known quote ‘Be realistic – plan a miracle,’ Kässens says with a laugh. 

Pony Luna helped in just a few weeks

Sarah Kässens has been helping people for 7 years already. In this time, the horses have already been able to help hundreds of people – but even they have limits: “If you have nothing to do with animals, horses can’t help you either. You have to want to get involved. Only then can we create good moments.” 

“I had a client who was totally devastated and had completely lost her self-esteem. She just cried. The woman was then asked to walk Luna through the hall once. I knew Luna would do that. For the woman, it was an indescribable experience. She went the rounds with Luna – and cried bitterly afterwards. She didn’t think she could do it.” “The woman built up an insane relationship with Luna. Within a few weeks, she had totally changed. Without Luna, I wouldn’t have been able to open her up so quickly.”

Mindfulness – for people and horses

It’s not just people with depression or burnout who need this mindfulness. The psychologist also treats herself to it: “When I ride out with Salem, it’s relaxation, but also always a little therapy for me.” Sarah always makes sure that her horses are doing well. Therapy is exhausting for them. That’s why, for example, the ponies shouldn’t do therapy for more than an hour a day.

She has never regretted her decision to work with the horses – even though it does mean she has no fixed hours. “My day starts at 6 a.m. every day when I take the horses out to pasture. Even vacations have to be planned carefully.” Still, she would do it over and over again, “I wouldn’t give it away. It’s my lifetime dream!”

Source: soulflection

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