Pictured at the Horses Helping Humans property in the Gold Coast hinterland are (l-r) Narelle van Egmond, Scottish born jockey Gina Mitchell, badly injured in a race fall, and program founder Sue Spence.

Equine therapy is becoming an increasingly popular support for young people who have experienced significant trauma, neglect or difficult life circumstances. Robin Osborne meets the ‘horse whisperer’ who helped found the program

Apart from talking horse Mr Ed, star of a 1960s sit-com, horses are not known for their conversational skills, but they are astute readers – not of books but of human emotions.

“This is why they’re so valuable in helping to heal damaged or confused lives, the kind experienced by many young people who have experienced neglect, abuse or other kinds of trauma,” said Michelle Hyde, northern coordinator of St Vincent de Paul Society’s Breaking the Barriers (BTB) program.

BTB is funded through Vinnies shop sales and works with families and communities, including certain schools, where children are socially disadvantaged or at risk. School breakfast programs are one such investment, as is the Horses Helping Humans program run by renowned horsewoman Sue Spence at Tallebudgera, in the Gold Coast hinterland.

Sue, now dubbed a horse-whisperer, was a show jump champion during her early days in NZ and came to understand the therapeutic value of horses through her own battle with ADHD. What she did to calm her own stress she now puts into practice with others.

The combination of large horse and small person may seem an unlikely one, but there’s ample proof that a well-managed interaction can deliver huge benefits in terms of children’s personal wellbeing and social behaviour, often for life.

The ‘secret’ is that horses, despite their size and strength, are prey animals that flee if they feel threatened. Conversely, they behave with amazing warmth when the person approaching them controls their emotions, relaxes any stress, and behaves with what Sue calls “calm assertiveness”.

Leaning back on your heels, rather than rocking forward on your toes is one tip Sue gives. Another is to let the horse see your hands clearly. No riding takes place, and safety around the horses is paramount.
Sue remembers the many children – more than 50 at last count – whom Vinnies has sponsored to undertake the five-hour program, either on a half-day or three-weekly basis.

Take 11-year-old Jake [not his real name] for example. Growing up in a Tweed Shire town he witnessed frequent domestic disputes within his family, eventually leading to violence. His stepfather had alcohol issues, and his mother, who had brought two other children to the relationship, was taking drugs during the day.

Jake was performing poorly at school, often not attending, and when he did, being defiant to teachers and showing aggression to other students. Warnings came thick and fast, but what could the school system do? Jake was at his third school within two years.

“Jake was identified as living in an at-risk family, and it was considered vital that there be a positive intervention,” said Michelle Hyde, an experienced social worker who liaises closely with various protection agencies. Vinnies BTB program is an important part of many care packages.

According to Sue, “When this boy arrived here he wouldn’t look anyone in the eye, and showed no interest in the horses.  We let him be for a while, and then I asked if he could hold the reins of a horse while I did some other jobs. Very slowly he came around, and by the end of the first session he was able to get the horse to follow him around like a pet.

“If you didn’t know how horses function you wouldn’t believe it possible, but he came right out of his shell, parked the latent aggression, and was already a changed person.”

The young people learn to gently back their horses away from them to create healthy boundaries, how to circle their horses around them on a four-metre lead, encourage them over small jumps and lead them through an agility course. That this bonding can happen so quickly is remarkable, given they have never met the animals before, and in most cases, have never even touched a horse.

Vinnies’ Michelle Hyde said, “Both families and agencies say that one morning here with Sue and her horses accelerates the kids’ recovery by three months. So as well as the huge personal benefits there’s a real financial saving. In many ways this can be better than more traditional ways of assisting disadvantaged youth into a more productive life.”