The healing horse
Visiting the Villa Santa Giuliana Hospital
Horses can help heal certain physical and psychological disorders. Here we look at an equitherapy centre, in northern Italy.
The property is not far from Lake Garda, north of Verona. The beauty of the place, however, is not enough to shield the person from suffering. Here, like elsewhere, horses can soothe the body and mind. The Villa Santa Giuliana Hospital practices equitherapy whereby horses, acting first and foremost as mediators, can become healers. It is a technique that works, as proven by the new-found smile on Carla’s face. We happened to join this young intern for a ride. Her encounter with horses put her back on life’s path. She now walks five kilometres every day to give a carrot to her horse, Saluta, which has helped her regain confidence and hope. This recovery was facilitated by the work of a team. We met doctors Antonio Straforini and Amedeo Bezzetto, as well as Michele, the educator and Linda, the manager of the riding stables.
Thanks to the support of Longines, the hospital was able to develop equitherapy, which could not have existed without this help
Dr. Antonio Straforini, tell us about your hospital and its history
The hospital belongs to the "Sorelle della Misericordia” [Sisters of Mercy] congregation. It was created for the social rehabilitation of people who have psychological problems. It all began in 1904, when Signore Giovanni Gagliardi, an industrialist from Verona, left a piece of land to his daughter, Olga. She is one of the Sisters of Mercy, known as Sister Celidonia. On this land is a building that the Sisters have gradually renovated to accommodate retired sisters and mentally vulnerable people. The Sisters were traditionally nurses, so they have always had this characteristic of helping the sick. The hospital was officially created in 1951.
What is the Sisters’ involvement in the hospital today?
The hospital is managed by the “Sorelle della Misericordia” Institute. The role of the sisters is to safeguard the Charism, so that Mercy forms the basis of the conduct of the people who work there.
What is the profile of your patients?
The patients are adults and teenagers. Adults can stay for a period of 30 to 90 days maximum. Teenagers, aged 14 to 18, can stay between 30 and 90 days. There are in- and out-patients. The latter return home at night. The hospital receives subsidies from the Italian state and patients do not have to contribute to the treatment costs. Thanks to the support of Longines, the hospital was able to develop equitherapy, which could not have existed without this help. The hospital started equitherapy in 2012.
Dr. Amedeo Bezzetto, you are responsible for rehabilitating teenagers. How did the idea of equitherapy come about?
With teenagers, it is sometimes difficult for us to enter into a relationship of trust. They do not always want to talk to us so psychotherapy can fail. We need to look for other therapies and horses are one of them; they come between the therapist and the teenager. They are a kind of mediator, which helps to build the relationship between the adult and the teenager. There are of course other mediators, such as music, art, sports, games, etc. But these are "static" mediators, whereas the horse is a living being. It is a player and comes up with situations that create a harmony in the relationship with the young person. Moreover, horses are basically good and kind animals. They are herbivores, not carnivores. They are tall and imposing, weighing about 700 kg, but they are not frightening. Teenagers with difficulties can rely on them with confidence. They become faithful to the horse, which they see as an ally. The relationship becomes very emotional. And this relationship with the horse is free, whereas people sometimes demand something in return. The horse gives without asking anything. It is a very generous animal that gives young people satisfaction and makes them more positive.
Tell us about the riding stable that welcomes young patients.
It is an independent and quite conventional riding stable, but which dedicates a part of its time to the hospital. We delegate a specialised educator and the stables provide us with an instructor. Both work together. Patients go to the stables one day a week. The morning is reserved for in-patients and the afternoon for out-patients.
How does the educator work?
The educator has a specific training, dedicated to teenagers with difficulties. His name is Michele. He is a horse rider, and passionate about horses. He is the one who accompanies the young people to the riding stables. He works with the instructor, Linda, who belongs to the riding stables.
Michele knows every child's story. Linda focuses on the animals. She chooses the right horse for each patient, by choosing a smaller or calmer animal for a patient who is very anxious, for example.
What results do you see after the session?
There are periods of evaluation and testing. But already at the end of the first session, there are smiles on the kids’ faces. They are more relaxed, and seem happier and calmer.
When teenagers leave your centre, do they continue with equitherapy?
Patients come from all over Italy, from the north to the south. When they go back home, many look for an equestrian club close to where they live. But unfortunately, equitherapy is not yet widespread in Italy. Some young people continue to ride, but without real treatment.
Michele, you are the educator. Can you explain your work at the riding stables?
We start by giving teenagers points of reference. Everyone gets a saddle that he or she will have to use during each session. Before riding the horse, the young person also has to make sure it is groomed and prepared. And after riding, he or she is responsible for bringing it in, putting away the equipment and cleaning everything. We work a lot on the emotional side: on fears and anxieties, but also on positive emotions, such as joy. The concept of mutual aid also has an important place here: young people collaborate with each other. The goal is to teach them how to better manage their emotions. And the results often exceed expectations...
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