Recently, the donkeys at our Leeds Donkey-Assisted Therapy centre made connections with some humans who themselves make an enormous impact on the lives of people with mental health conditions. This #WorldMentalHealthDay, we are celebrating the wonderful work done by mental health carers.
At our Donkey-Assisted Therapy centres, we place donkey-human interaction at the heart of reaching out and helping to transform lives. No matter how big or small an impact our donkeys have on the humans they come into contact with, every interaction is worthwhile.
Our donkeys work with people from all kinds of backgrounds - including people who are living with mental health conditions. Earlier this year, for example, our Sidmouth Donkey-Assisted Therapy centre donkeys connected with a group of people coping with bereavement due to the loss of a loved one to suicide.
More recently, our Donkey-Assisted Therapy centre in Leeds hosted a slightly different - although just as important - group of participants than usual. At the end of September, a group of over 20 mental health carers joined us from the Early Intervention Team from the Bradford District Care Trust for their own, bespoke Donkey Experience Day.
Our equine assisted activity sessions with vulnerable clients are usually confidential, but we are lucky enough to be able to share a behind-the-scenes look at our Donkey-Assisted Therapy programme with the Early Intervention Team - who were keen to share the benefits that working with donkeys can bring to vulnerable clients this #WorldMentalHealthDay.
The team's day began with mindfulness exercises – how we start most Donkey Facilitated Learning sessions – in and among our donkeys. Initially, the donkeys were very curious and the team excited, but once they began their exercises the herd and the group were soon ‘in the moment’ and as one, calm. These group mindfulness exercises, led by our equine assistants and coaches, soon helped the team to feel grounded and ‘present’, ready for the rest of their day shared with our donkeys.
The rest of the morning was spent in ‘approach and connect’ exercises - a way to explore boundaries and communication through interaction with donkeys - invaluable tools for a team to be cohesive, as well as for supporting those with mental health needs to the best of their abilities.
The afternoon consisted of spending quality time with the donkeys. Grooming is not only good for donkeys in terms of their welfare, it can also be a pleasurable, calming experience for them (and, as those who have spent any time grooming a donkey will know, a pleasurable and calming experience for us humans too).
This was followed by a sensory walk with the donkeys around our aptly named ‘sensory trail’, where the donkeys were given an opportunity to browse on different tastes and textures. The team learnt how, like humans, donkeys have diverse tastes and favour different things, even within a small herd like ours.
The day rounded out with a ‘journey through time’, an opportunity for the team as a whole to utilise physical props from in and around our indoor arena, to map out their journey as a team – past endeavours, the present moment, and future aspirations. They were joined in the arena by three of our more playful donkeys – Goose, Doug, and Lewis – who observed their every move, and offered moral (and even physical) support along the way.
Goose, Doug and Lewis stayed close-by, moving gently and untethered within the group as the team shared their journeys as mental health carers.
Doug in particular appeared utterly at ease with the group - so much though that he decided to drop and roll close to them, seemingly confident that he was in a safe place.
Donkeys are highly emotionally sensitive animals, no matter if they are around other equines or humans. It was clear from those who interacted with the Early Intervention Team that they naturally created a true sense of trust and confidence from the donkeys. In this unlikely pairing of donkeys and humans, both groups shared several things in common - a clear affinity for emotion, empathy, and cultivating care.