Today’s story from the archives is a bittersweet one: yes, it is a lovely story about the remarkable ways that animals can help humans, and about how good animals are at connecting with people, especially in subtle and emotional ways.
But there is a very sad aspect to this story: the horse who features, Thea, passed away after serious illness, precisely three months ago today. So it is with a heavy heart that I now present this tale. Let’s read this in celebration of an amazing horse, and perhaps use this as a reminder to us all that life needs to be cherished so much, every day, because ultimately everything is temporary, and even the best things come to an end.
Please read on, enjoy the story, and send positive and caring thoughts to Alison, who is now grieving at the lost of her very close and dear friend, Thea.
Thea, the most remarkable horse
A few years ago, Alison was seriously ill, with both Epileptic Seizures and Dissociative seizures ( also known as non epileptic seizures). She was receiving intense medical treatment which was helping to control the symptoms, but she had difficulty simply walking and talking in a normal way.
Then, out of the blue, a friend asked her if she’d like to adopt a retired racehorse called Thea. Alison liked animals, she had enjoyed doing some horse riding, so despite her illness, she thought: “Why not”? And that’s how Thea came into her life.
On paper, the relationship should not have worked: Thea was a finely bred racing animal who had never been a pet, and Alison had very limited experience of working with such large animals like this. However, with the help of friends and a local stable owner, the two of them gradually learned to know each other. In many instances, the story might just have stopped there: a woman and her horse enjoying companionship. But in this case, something interesting and life-changing happened.
It started one day when Alison was leading Thea out of the stable, using a head collar and rope. At this stage, Alison was still recovering from her illness, and struggling to walk normally. However as she stepped out with Thea, she found herself falling into the same rhythm as the horse. Her brain could hear the clip-clop of Thea’s hooves, and this seemed to trigger her own movements to follow suit. So as Thea’s left foot struck the ground, Alison’s left foot also landed squarely, instead of dragging and limping as had been happening up until that point. There was also something about being beside this large, muscular animal: Alison had to focus on keeping constant physical and mental tone in order to keep in tune with Thea. She had to remain “at attention” all the time, and this forced her to improve her posture and her movements, without even thinking about it.
There were other incidents that helped Alison: she had to do certain physical manoeuvres while walking with Thea, such as opening and closing gates, picking up objects from the ground, etc. Normally, Alison would have had had difficulties doing such coordinated actions, but with Thea beside her, she had a guide to help her along, and everything just seemed to synchronise.
working with thea had a beneficial effect all round
Alison found that her general hand-eye coordination and balance improved, just like her walking. Her speech became clearer at the same time: the close work with Thea had an overall beneficial effect all round on Alison’s troubling neurological symptoms.
Alison decided that since the impact on her own condition had been so beneficial, there was a good chance that other people could also benefit from working with horses in the same way. She talked to neurophysiologists, neurologists, occupational therapists, drama teachers and others to find out more about how she could do this. The result has been the development of a specific type of obstacle course that includes a number of the activities that she had found helpful, as well as other tasks suggested by experts, designed to optimise the improvements for a range of medical conditions including neurological disorders from epilepsy to Alzheimer’s Disease.
There are twenty one obstacles on the course, including both cognitive (puzzle-like) and motor (physically fiddly) tasks, such as opening latches, stepping over low hurdles, throwing a ball through a hoop, and negotiating a zigzag path through a series of cones on the ground, Different parts of the brain are stimulated by carrying out the various activities.
Alison has given this new type of horse therapy a name: Thea’s Challenge. A clinical research project was launched last month, encouraging people with a range of medical conditions to take part in Thea’s Challenge, and recording the results of their progress over weeks and months.
This whole project has been a remarkable partnership between human neurology and animal behaviour. If a person with a neurological disorder was asked to carry out an obstacle course like this on their own, they just wouldn’t be able to do it. The company – and close presence – of a horse has a deep effect on the way that the human brain works. It is difficult to put it into words, and to explain precisely what happens, but the fact remains that it works very effectively. And more than this, it is enjoyable. Alison loves walking with Thea beside her, and most people experience a type of comfortable awe when walking closely beside a horse. The relationship between person and animal works in both ways: the human is very conscious of the horse, and the horse, equally, is tuned in to the person. Some people in the past might even have referred to the interaction as “magical”; it’s more accurate to say that it’s a complex emotional and intuitive relationship that works on many levels.
Thea’s Challenge is an exciting new type of therapy; Alison feels deep gratitude to this remarkable horse that has come into her life, and she’s delighted to be able to share her experience with others.
Alison has obviously been devastated by Thea’s death but she is using the emotional energy to do something very positive. She is involved in creating a documentary on the Story of Thea and Theas Challenge. Alison is now involved in training another horse, and the documentary will follow how this process pans out.
Called “Bonnie Takes the Reins”, the documentary will show how Alison trains Bonnie, Thea’s old stable mate in Brooke Lodge Stables. Bonnie is learning how to be a partner for a person with Neurological Disorder, like Thea was for Alison.
Alison’s aim is to develop Thea’s Challenge to the point where it is available for others to do, and the documentary will be an exciting way of helping spread the word.
Thea may now be gone in body, but her presence and impact will be felt for many years to come.