Horses help prisoners to heal

A Dorset prison has been using horses to help prisoners learn life skills and deal with emotional and behavioural difficulties. The results have been impressive, providing new evidence for the effectiveness of using horses in therapy

Throughout the last 20 years, the use of horses in therapeutic settings has been on the increase, helping people with difficulties ranging from addiction to depression to severe behavioural issues.

While Equine Assisted Therapy has become an established industry, it has its critics, and so far there has been very little hard scientific evidence of its effectiveness. But this year, a pioneering programme conducted by horsewoman Harriet Laurie in HMP Portland in Dorset has produced solid proof that it works.

Harriet Laurie, a design and marketing consultant and single mother of three boys, has been a dedicated horsewoman since childhood. Six years ago she discovered Parelli, an American style of ‘natural horsemanship’ where instead of using force, fear or harsh mechanical training aids, the emphasis is on controlling and focusing one’s own emotional energy and body language so that the horse feels safe and becomes willingly responsive and obedient.

Harriet began incorporating Parelli into her own riding and teaching practice. Then, two years ago, through contact with the renowned human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, she found herself “in a field with a horse and an ex-prisoner who had just been released from 17 years on death row in the US,” she says.

After working together for just one afternoon, this man became so passionately convinced of the broader potential of her work that he urged Harriet to take it into prisons.

“Most studies of equine therapy rely on anecdotal evidence about what people feel and think but we wanted to measure hard data and the prison regime leant itself perfectly to that”

With the help of the former MP for South Dorset, Jim Knight (now Lord Knight of Weymouth), Harriet began a pilot programme in HMP Portland in July 2010. She started with eight prisoners – some of the most violent offenders in the prison – and worked with them intensively, morning and afternoon, for two-week periods.

“Even I wasn’t sure it would work,” says Harriet, “but the results were really surprising.”

“Horses pick up on everything you’re feeling. If you’re anxious, uncertain, distracted or aggressive, the horse will back off, turn away or ignore you. If, on the other hand, you’re relaxed, focused, assertive and confident, you can get these Parelli-trained horses to do anything you want. So this is really what I am teaching. I work a lot non-verbally. And I often start by just giving them the end of a rope and saying, ‘You’re the horse and I’m a person’ and we take it from there.

“Prisoners, like horses, know what it feels like to be corralled and controlled, so often they have a better rapport than the rest of us.”

Harriet teaches two men at a time so that they get a chance to both experience and observe the process. Eventually, they learn to back a horse up, to get it to come to them, to walk in harmony with them, to weave around cones, and more.

“If, by the end, this huge, beautiful, quite scary animal is doing what they want it to do, they get an amazing sense of achievement,” she says. “In the process, they learn a lot of life skills like communication, empathy, patience, determination and responsibility. And they love it.”

The pilot programme was so successful it was extended, and Harriet has now worked with 35 prisoners in HMP Portland. Last year Professor Rosie Meek, a professor of criminology and psychology, and Dr Ann Hemingway, a senior lecturer in public health, began an academic evaluation of her work.

“Most studies of equine therapy rely on anecdotal evidence about what people feel and think,” says Harriet, “but we wanted to measure hard data and the prison regime leant itself perfectly to that.”

The governor of the prison, Steve Holland, said he was “astounded at how much progress can be made with natural horsemanship techniques”

The prison uses a system of adjudications – effectively an internal court case – to deal with offences conducted within the prison, such as violence or stealing. They also have a system of ‘positive and negative entries’, which the staff use as a record of good and bad behaviour. These systems, among other indicators, were closely monitored over many months, before and after the prisoners worked with the horses.

The findings were impressive. The number of adjudications had fallen by 74%. The number of ‘negative entries’ for bad behaviour reduced by 72%. The governor of the prison, Steve Holland, said he was “astounded at how much progress can be made with natural horsemanship techniques.”

The study, which Harriet confirms achieved what is recognised as “statistically significant results”, was published this September called TheHorseCourse Interim Evaluation Report.

Harriet has received funding from the Tudor Trust to replicate her programme in other prisons. She also has some NHS funding to work at HMP Portland with prisoners with drug and alcohol problems. Harriet’s organisation, TheHorseCourse, is now a registered charity with the actor Martin Clunes as one of its patrons. TheHorseCourse still has a way to go to fund their dreams, but they hope by the end of the year to have recruited and trained enough people to operate in four new prisons.

In the words of one of the young offenders who participated in the programme: “I feel hope for the first time. This is just the beginning.”