Equine-assisted therapy that helps the horses as much as the humans. Now THAT is a stroke of genius! And it’s exactly what Horses For Hope does. This charity based in regional Victoria, Australia uses a unique herd of horses in a nature-based therapy program in which participants work to heal the horses’ psychological trauma as well as their own.
In a nutshell, what is Horses For Hope’s mission?
To improve the lives of people and horses who are trying to overcome the effects of problems in life such as trauma, learning and behavioural disabilities, or any other mental health challenge.
What does your therapy program involve?
Horses For Hope has two important and unique elements.
Firstly, we are a non-traditional nature-based counselling program that uses a method called Narrative Therapy, which focuses on understanding and reframing the stories we tell ourselves about the circumstances of our lives. More specifically, we take a person-centred approach that positions participants as the experts on their own lives. Narrative Therapy is an evidence-based process to help people recover from all sorts of challenges such as intergenerational trauma, sexual and domestic violence, addiction, and mental health conditions such as ADHD, ASD, PTSD, anxiety, depression, and any other disorder.
Secondly, we specifically work with horses who have also experienced challenges and trauma in their lives. Through consistently working with our participants, our horses learn that humans are okay and can be trusted, with every session offering an opportunity for them to meet a human who is kind and compassionate. We teach our participants how to work with the horses to establish trust and connection using natural horsemanship techniques we refer to as ‘horse yard skills’ influenced by the work of Monty Roberts and Warwick Schiller. These are practical emotional regulation techniques that participants can take away and use in their everyday lives.
Tell us about your herd. Are the members ever-changing or permanent? Where do they come from, and how do you choose the right horses For the program?
Currently, we have nine horses in our program in all shapes, sizes and breeds – all the way from Minis and Shetlands to Thoroughbreds and Clydesdales! Our horses come to us from all sorts of traumatic situations, often rescued from the sale yards or abattoirs by animal welfare groups such as the RSPCA. We also have owners ask us to help with horses they love, but struggle to manage or find dangerous to be around. Our horses stay in the program for as long as needed, sometimes many years, until we feel that they are psychologically ready to go back to their owner or go to a home that is dedicated to continuing the trauma-informed practice and method of working with the horse that we have established. We specifically work with the minds of horses who have experienced psychological trauma, so we only accept horses that are struggling mentally into our program. Since 2004, we have helped over 100 horses recover and go on to live happy and healthy lives.
What’s the biggest lesson that the horses in the program have taught you?
Our horses are our biggest teachers, 100%! But the biggest thing is that as they are prey animals, horses have a hyper-vigilant nervous system and are incredibly attuned to what is happening in their environment, and especially inside a human, in order to keep themselves safe. It is said that horses can hear our heartbeat from 10 metres away, so if we are displaying nervous system activation (such as shallow breathing, overthinking, emotional or physical tension) they are going to respond to that because we aren’t modelling calm, safe leadership – which in a traditional herd situation might mean life or death. A lot of the time, these processes are below our level of conscious awareness, so horses teach us very practically to slow down, breathe and emotionally regulate. They are like mindfulness Zen masters.
Tell us your favourite success story from the program!
We define success in the tiny incremental steps forward for both our participants and our horses. We can see the tangible success of the program in every single session, when our horses and participants can learn to be in their own experiences – in a calm and content way – and realise that the stories that have defined their lives thus far do not necessarily have to be the same ones they take into their future. Every session is another example of what is possible with the right support.
What does a typical day at Horses For Hope look like?
The day always starts with breakfast for our horses first and foremost! Our team is made up of horse practitioners and counsellors and we run three sessions per day at our farm, four days per week.
Our sessions run for 1.5 hours and involve sitting down in a refurbished 100 year old barn to discuss what is happening for that participant, to explain which horse they will work with (they work with a different horse every time) and what we are going to ask the horse to do (desensitizing activities such as leading, grooming, picking up feet, walking onto a float or through streamers, standing on a pallet or tarp – anything can become a session!). Then the participant accompanies the horse practitioner to catch the horse – this is important for the participant to see, as the last thing a traumatised horse will give up is their freedom. However, by the end of the session in the round yard, participants see a different horse. Because they have modelled calm and gentle leadership, the horse can regulate and hang its head in relaxation, and this is a great sense of accomplishment for everyone who comes to our program. We finish each session by returning to the barn for a debrief, and discussing how what the participant was able to do in the yard can be applied to life.
What are your dreams and goals For Horses For Hope?
Our goals are all centred around expanding the capacity of the program, to make it more available to those who need it. We always have a wait list these days, as more people are finding that traditional room-based therapy isn’t for them, especially younger people. This year we will increase the number of sessions we can run per day and extend the program out to five days per week. Soon, we would like to set up more Horses For Hope programs in other regional areas where there are limited mental health interventions. We also would like to subsidise as many low-income individuals as possible in order to make this service available to everyone, no matter their circumstances.
As we are a charity, this expansion is supported by the incredible people and organisations who provide us with financial funding, but in order to keep doing the work we do, we need to continue to find new people and businesses to support us in all sorts of ways.
How can readers get involved and support the incredible work you’re doing?
We have recently built a new website which offers a lot of information about the program, referral pathways and FAQs. We accept referrals from both individuals and service providers alike, and NDIS accommodate for our program under their support plans. We can accept donations through our website, but also welcome anyone who wants to support our program to get in touch with me at email@example.com