A new breed of therapists

History shows the mutual way humans and horses have prospered from partnership. Today, horses are contributing to human flourishing via the field of Equine Therapy where their role in health and wellbeing is taking on renewed significance.

The Yarra Valley is home to many horses and it is against the lush green backdrop of mountains, pastures and rivers that local Equine Therapists are building a reputation at the forefront of this growing field of personal and psychological development.

Worldwide, Equine Therapy is being used to successfully touch the lives of people with PTSD, depression and anxiety, youth at risk, and children with autism as just some examples.

Meredith Torpey, director of  Sanctuary Equus Inc in Wesburn, a not-for-profit education, trauma recovery and equine rehabilitation centre,  and Kim Wren of Wedgetail Rides in Launching Place, have both established Equine Therapy centres offering a range of programs and services that have their origins in the disciplines of counselling, art therapy and Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL). 

Both women have extensive experience in horse-orientated fields and have seen firsthand how horses teach humans to relate.  Ideally Equine Therapists need to be both excellent horse handlers and highly skilled counsellors/therapists.  

Meredith is an EA/NCAS (Equestrian Australia) Level 1G coach,  EFL and Coaching Level 2 facilitator, has a Diploma of Arts in Counselling (Arts Therapy) and is a Cert IV vocational educator. Kim is a qualified art therapist, EFL Level 2 facilitator and is accredited with Horse Safety Australia.

Sanctuary Equus Inc provides clinical counselling services in trauma recovery and focuses on individuals with more serious mental health issues such as Complex-PTSD. Psychologists work in conjunction with Meredith and the Sanctuary’s facilitators, which also has a volunteer program with almost 30 participants. 

The clients who come to equine therapy sessions are from varied backgrounds and may not have prior horse experience.

Sessions are based on groundwork meaning clients experience horses ‘on the ground’ in what appear to be simple exercises such as grooming, picking up the horse’s feet and leading them through agility or obstacle courses in an arena.  However, without first building trust such activities can provide enormous challenges. 

Horses are both herd animals and prey animals. They are highly attuned to their environment and mirror the emotions and behaviours they witness in humans. This provides a profound opportunity for people to learn self-regulation and for the horse to show them how they think and feel.  ‘Horses look for the health in people’, says Meredith, ‘so they reinforce our best traits and show us where we can improve.’

Non-verbal communication, caring and empathy, anger management, confidence, boundary setting and leadership are often newly acquired skills that clients discover. For many clients, equine therapy provides a breakthrough for issues other therapies have been unable to reach.  

The horses are the true miracle workers in sessions. Not every horse is suited to the dynamics of the therapy situation, so horses are carefully chosen for their safety, character and willingness to participate. 

Occasionally a rehabilitated rescue horse will show suitability as a therapy horse and Kim will often see a horse and client choose one another without knowing they have had similar trauma – a starved ex-racehorse has found a new way of life rehabilitated as a therapy horse that draws young people with eating disorders to his side.  Kim recalls how a young women recovering from a drug addiction had built a solid foundation with a therapy horse over several weeks when suddenly the horse wouldn’t respond to her. The young woman had relapsed the day prior. The horse knew.  

Meredith says, ‘The horse becomes the mediator – a bridge into the client’s world. This takes the focus away from the therapist and allows the client to relax and not feel they have to “perform”.  A horse’s natural state is to be calm, and the herd will maintain that sense of calm for its members – we can benefit from that.’

CARA Inc, a not-for-profit community service organisation that works with some of the most vulnerable young women in Victoria on Protective Custody Orders, has been bringing clients to participate in the ‘Feeling Herd’ program at Wedgetail Rides. Caseworker Sarah sees how the horses engage young people who have been resistant to other therapies, who are then able to learn new ways of caring for themselves and others. ‘I see women with very challenging life circumstances feel accepted – the horses don’t care what your story is, only that you are authentic and kind. This is a revelation for many traumatised clients.’

Sanctuary Equus offers the progressive ‘Horses for Life’ VCAL program – one of the first programs of its kind in Australia – where students learn life skills including numeracy and literacy through horse-related activities. Also offered is a Certificate III in Horsemanship providing further learning opportunities. For one young women, learning anger management skills through her interactions with horses helped her transition to high school and find stability in a permanent home after almost 20 foster homes. Meredith has seen a selective mute start speaking after participating in the Horses for Life Program and had caseworkers marvel when children with autism are able to be still when sitting on a pony.

Kim’s session work with children helps families find new resources. One child with autism was unable to start kinder until he could feed himself and was toilet trained.  ‘Through weekly sessions with Shetland pony Noddy, the child worked through his challenges. He ate his first apple sitting on Noddy, and took his first wee in the dam with Noddy,’ says Kim.  ‘This was life changing for the family.’

‘We know horses change the brain and influence body systems including respiration, heart rate and even biochemistry through the release of feel-good hormones. Horses also bring to the surface what is most important at the time,’ says Meredith.   

There is significant research to support Equine Therapy but for Meredith and Kim, and the clients who have experienced the horse as therapist, there is a magic that is difficult to explain but readily seen in the growth and recovery of people who discover who they are with a horse as their guide.