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Beth Anstandig on BBC World Service

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Beth Anstandig

BBC Health Check with Alison van Diggelen

Beth Anstandig spoke with Alison van Diggelen of BBC World Service about the work she does with humans and horses. Beth explained our resilience to stress and change comes from our self-care practices and how the animals show us how soothing and powerful it can be when we commit to more consistency in our awareness and adjustments to pressure. The story integrates recent research which showed physiological healing following equine therapy for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Beth discusses how benefits from equine work are far-reaching and you don’t have to be in crisis or trauma to benefit from working with horses. 

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If you prefer, you can read the transcription below:

Claudia Hammond (00:00):
Margaret Harris from the WHO. You’re listening to Health Check from the BBC and I’m Claudia Hammond. Now to depression. If someone has depression, the most common treatments are talking therapies and or medication, but in California, there’s something rather different happening using ranches and horses as Alison van Diggelen reports.

Alison van Diggelen (00:21):
Beth Anstandig has seen a spike in clients looking for help for anxiety, trauma, and loneliness since the pandemic began. Today, her client is a 50-year-old woman named Michelle and they’re in the barn with Riva, a brown mare with a black mane and tail. Yeah.

Beth Anstandig (00:37):
Notice as you brush her if she gives you feedback.

Michelle (00:42):
I can’t tell. I’m not sure what her feedback is.

Beth Anstandig (00:44):
So if I stop talking and you start observing, it’ll help you tune in.

Michelle (00:49):
Okay… yeah. I mean with my dog, it’s so incredibly obvious. And if you stop, then they buck your hand to like keep going.

Beth Anstandig (00:58):
Right as I stopped talking, she started licking and chewing, which is her nervous system going into a relaxed state. And she also took some steps forward. So what is she showing you?

Michelle (01:11):
I got it as like, you know, I’m going to adjust so that you’re doing (brushing) where I want you to be.

Alison van Diggelen (01:16):
Beth Anstandig has been working with horses for four decades. She pivoted her traditional talk therapy practice in an office to equine therapy when she bought the ranch seven years ago. She examined equine research that showed physiological healing in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, and decided that you don’t have to be in trauma to benefit from working with horses.

Beth Anstandig (01:38):
This is a safe horse. However, you are in between a thousand-pound animal and a wall. And you didn’t notice.

Michelle (01:46):
Well, when you put it like that.

Beth Anstandig (01:48):
So where are the places in your life that you sometimes end up in a tight spot like this without even realizing you got yourself there?

Michelle (01:58):

Alison van Diggelen (01:58):
The healing power of horses dates back to the ancient Greeks who used them for therapeutic purposes. In modern times, equine therapy still has its skeptics, but anecdotal evidence is now being supported by growing clinical research. Ellen Kaye Gehrke runs an integrative health program at National University in San Diego. Her latest peer-reviewed research examined the treatment of PTSD in war veterans. It showed remarkable results.

Ellen Kaye Gehrke (02:26):
We were at a conference a couple of years ago, and a bunch of public health people came up to us and said, what pill are you giving these people? The effect is like a drug.

Alison van Diggelen (02:35):
Kaye Gehrke works with small groups of war veterans, some of whom have lost hope and are suicidal. Her eight-week program helps them build connections with the horses through grooming and interactive activities. More recently, she has them saddle up and ride.

Ellen Kaye Gehrke (02:52):
So we’d wanted to get the veterans up on the horses, not to go galloping away, but to just to have some movement.

We did notice there was quite a bit of difference when they rode. Their spirit, their physical carriage, the way they stood, when they presented themselves there, you know, just the openness around their faces. The main point of my program is the heart connection.

Alison van Diggelen (03:12):
What does Kaye Gehrke mean by the heart connection?

It really is to heart rate variability, HRV, the variation and the time between consecutive heartbeats. A normal, healthy heart doesn’t tick evenly like a metronome, but instead, there’s a constant variation. In general, the higher the variation at rest, the fitter you are and the greater your ability to handle stress.

Professor Michael Myers, chair of health sciences, and a research physiologist at National University has found that being with horses improves your heart rate variability.

Dr. Michael Myers (03:46):
Horses are prey animals. So they’re constantly alerted to their surroundings. And that seems to trigger some response in humans.

So we use a technique on these devices, which is basically reflection-based bio-optical imaging. We’re able to measure the heartbeats in the subject and something around the horses changes the heart rate variation. That stress like when you’re in the fight or flight response when you’re running from the tiger.

And what’s really good is this, where the heart varies it’ll take a couple of short beats and then a long beat and horses seem to have that effect. It’s within the first visit within three hours, their heart rate variability is altered in a positive way.

Ellen Kaye Gehrke (04:26):
And we noticed that their heart rate variability like he said, improved the first day. That their self-report took four weeks. We could see that they were getting better, but they were still in these messages of sort of self-destruct. But by the fourth week, they actually started changing a lot of their self-report about how they were feeling – less agitated, less irritable, more joyful.

Alison van Diggelen (04:46):
Beth Anstandig has found that the practices used for PTSD treatment can benefit her clients. In sessions of two to four hours, they’re introduced to the horses in the pasture and spend time interacting with and grooming it. Back in the barn, Anstandig explains how horses deal with new challenges.

Beth Anstandig (05:05):
So they respond to what’s happening ’cause they’re taking care of themselves a hundred percent of the time. It’s radical self-care.

If you get really scared and reactive, cause you’re not a horse and you’re not living in a pasture where you’re going to go galloping off and letting all those stress hormones, the adrenaline and the cortisol flow through you. Because what happens if you run is you use them. If you don’t, they use you.

Michelle (05:30):

Beth Anstandig (05:31):
And that’s why you can’t sleep.

Michelle (05:32):

Beth Anstandig (05:32):
So we want to start to build like a bucket of choices of things you can do when you feel that way. You can’t think of those things when you’re in a panic.

Michelle (05:43):
You need your radio, your colouring book…

Beth Anstandig (05:45):
Exactly. She’s releasing all kinds of pressure as we’re talking about this phenomena and she’s like, “Oh, you guys hang onto a lot, don’t you?”

Michelle (05:59):
Like oh, let it go.

Alison van Diggelen (06:00):
Anstandig recommends we move our bodies, going on a walk in nature, get a punching bag and finding outlets to physically express ourselves.

Beth Anstandig (06:08):
The smells and textures of like, that’s like the vibrant part of our humanity that we’re missing out on when we’re focused on our worries, other people and either the past or the future.

Alison van Diggelen (06:22):
Of course, we don’t all have access to horses. Can our pets improve our mental health?

Beth Anstandig (06:27):
A good deal of our resilience to stress and change comes from our self-care practices.

The animals, they show us how soothing it can be just to be. You get yourself close to the animal. You focus on the dog or a cat and their breath. And your only objective is to be together and breathe together. And now you give the animal a light stroke with one hand and you place your other hand on your chest right over your heart. And now you think about which of your human relationships might benefit from such a wordless and gentle check-in.

Claudia Hammond (07:08):
Alison van Diggelen reporting. Now, Dr. Ann Robinson is still with me. I don’t know whether you like horses. Would equine therapy appeal to you?

Dr. Ann Robinson (07:14):
It would appeal to me a lot, Claudia. The idea of nuzzling up or stroking a horse rather than perhaps getting on top and riding it would really appeal to me.

Claudia Hammond (07:22):
As someone whose last encounter with horses involved jumping off. And I do insist, I jumped, I didn’t fall off a Shetland pony when I was about five. I’ve never got on one since ’cause it went too fast and I didn’t like that. So I can’t say it would calm me down. But do you think there’s just something about these strong animals?

Dr. Ann Robinson (07:38):
Well, I don’t know, but I think maybe we’re saying we’re more nuzzlers than riders.

Claudia Hammond (07:42):
Fair enough.

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