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Eating Disorders Are Notoriously Hard to Cure, But Does Animal Therapy Hold the Key?

29/04/2014 11:39 BST | Updated 28/06/2014 10:59 BST

At school, someone was always dieting. We would read "Just 17" at lunch, laugh at the sex problem page, and discuss our bodies. I knew about eating disorders and I never would have thought myself prone to one, but in my early twenties, when I was working full time as a PA, I found self esteem problems coming to the fore, and I too, stopped eating normally.

It wasn't just a case of wanting to be thinner; eating disorders, pretty quickly, cause chemical imbalances that bring on depression, and eventually I felt like I was not worth feeding. Lying awake at night with heart palpitations, I knew what I was doing was hurting me, but gradually, my worth became linked, in my eyes, solely to my weight.

Standing on the scales one morning, watching the dial stop a few pounds short of 7 stone, I realized that no matter how thin I was, I still felt miserable. It wasn't until animals came back into my life that I started to heal, and feel that life could be enjoyable again. I was lucky enough to be sent to a private place that used Equine therapy. It had been probably 6 or 7 years since I had been around horses, and I found that the old me came flooding back, lost confidence returning with the emersion in an experience unconnected to my physical appearance, something I could do right.

I have worked with dogs full time since, which has been fantastic. I've met some wonderful people and wonderful dogs, and seen so many lives transformed by the love of, and for, animals. With animals around me, I can cope with anything life throws at me. Last year, I decided to put more time into riding horses regularly, and am now sharing a beautiful Thoroughbred, and being trained by a very gifted pro, which is really exciting. Being in the saddle gives me a feeling of happiness and peace that nothing can touch. I just love being around horses, and I feel like i'm walking on air for hours afterwards, even if it's grey and pouring with rain! I honestly don't know where I'd be without animals, I owe them my health.

Animals, in the right environment, work as great stress relievers. Research has proved that physically, animals have a beneficial effect on our heart rate and blood pressure. Interacting with them makes us happy, and even our physical fitness, given that many animals, i.e. horses and dogs, require exercising, improves. They also don't judge us, they don't want to con us out of money, and they are happy when we are happy.

In stark contrast, we are bombarded with advertising; ridiculous fake images of the unattainable abound, making us feel inferior. We all know images of models are altered (stretched, trimmed and painted) out of all recognition, to manipulate us into buying things we don't need, but it doesn't help. Animals put us back on planet earth.

It is so sad that young girls are still being subjected to these pressures at such a vulnerable time in their lives. We live in a sick society, in which you need the skin of a rhino before you even reach puberty. Bodies are supposed to be for expression, learning, communication, for fun, to help people... not vessels to be rated according to current aesthetic standards. Barbie has a lot to answer for, but at least she has a horse.

If you pick up any fashion magazine and remind yourself, NO ONE has a body that shape, not even the model, it all seems absurd. It is so destructive, emotionally, physically and financially! Yet so many girls turn against their own normal bodies in disgust at the difference between it, and these airbrushed art works. You might as well compare yourself to an earthworm!

One thing the paparazzi could be congratulated for, is providing us with some real life photos of unairbrushed faces and some normal curvy bodies that haven't been lengthened and shaved in Photoshop. Sadly though, plenty of these celeb women are falling head first into the eating disorder trap themselves, and having their skeletal bodies pasted all over the tabloids. It's like car crash TV. It needs to stop.

It is estimated that 10% of us will at some point suffer from an eating disorder. It's hardly surprising when as youngsters we are trained by the media that thinness and beauty, to the point of illness, equals success. A study of primary school children found that little girls rarely aspire to be doctors or lawyers or sportswomen, they want to be models and pole dancers, and they want cosmetic surgery at younger ages than ever. We are teaching our daughters that what they look like is what matters most.

Animals teach us about unconditional love and using our bodies for communication, looking after nutritional needs, health, and of caring for something other than ourselves. Horses particularly, teach us the value of our bodies as an instrument of communication and strength.

The NHS is looking for ways to reduce the vast cost of caring for people with eating disorders, who are notorious for returning again and again, to be patched up but not fixed. Why not incorporate animals as therapy? Animals get to the heart of the problem and change thinking; IV drips don't.

Prisons have had phenomenal success combining rescued problem dogs with inmates. The knock on effect of improved attitude, behaviour and well being in prisons is staggering, as seen in the Rover Rehabilitation project. Animal charities would benefit from the arrangement too. Love breeds love.

In the UK, eating disorders are on the rise with the highest figures in Europe. Anorexia kills more people than any other psychiatric condition, and Bulimia, which is far more common, is a deadly disease which can kill without anyone realizing anything was really wrong, simply because the person wasn't emaciated. Eating Disorders are famously hard to treat, but increasingly, specialists are finding success using animals. 'Patting Dogs' are becoming more popular in hospitals, and the 'Equine Assisted Therapy' charity reports that "A relationship developed with a horse can offer challenges to help overcome fears, build up trust, respect, compassion, develop communication skills, problem solving & coping techniques, self confidence and self esteem. These skills are transferrable to many other areas of ordinary day to day life.". Animals teach us that we are more than 1 dimensional. They don't care what we look like.