The Bulletin’s roving reporter Crystal Bevan has followed her visit with the Pegasus riding program for disabled children with a look at a local business applying the equally interesting concept of equine therapy. She finds there are a range of mental health and personal growth issues experienced by people, particularly young adults, which benefit from guided interaction with horses.
“THE MOST COMMON thing that people will have seen about equine therapy in the media will be about post-traumatic stress disorder. The media seem to have focused on post-traumatic stress, and we certainly do that and cover that for clients, but it’s much broader than that, from anxiety to anorexia, from anger to autism, from team building to leadership.”
Tracey Durr of Carwoola (pictured above) has been practicing natural horsemanship for many years and has recently gained professional qualifications in equine therapy to work as a facilitator. Tracey received her qualifications from The Global Standard for Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Personal Development (or Eagala), who define their organization as ‘the leading international nonprofit association for professionals incorporating horses to address mental health and personal development needs’.
Tracey describes the practice of equine therapy as a form of experiential learning, “[Clients] are not just being told how to do it, and they actually have to find a solution. We’re there as support, to be able to help them with the tools to do that.” Equine therapy approaches mental health from a different angle to traditional therapy, offering an alternative and an adjunct.
“The wonderful thing about my role as a facilitator is that I’m not here to diagnose anybody or prescribe drugs. I watch the client work with the horses and we work with what’s happening for them on that particular day”, Tracey explains. “The horses are able to cut through to what’s going on inside the person, and my role as a facilitator is to observe how the horses are reacting to the person, and how the person reacts to the horses. We go from there and we can create activities where they can overcome their obstacles.”
At-risk youth, getting beyond the talk
The majority of Tracey’s current clients are youth, but her equine-assisted learning sessions can extend to corporate team leadership days and team building days. Tracey’s younger clients are at-risk youth who have often been “through years and years of talk therapy and nothing’s worked”. Tracey explains that “[equine therapy] gives them an opportunity to learn by doing; a hands-on approach where clients are given the space to project and analyze their situations; make connections, and find their own solutions. This is also about me hearing their story. When working with horses, the attention is directed towards the horse, therefore making it less confronting for the client”.
Many of Tracey’s clients are referred from the Police-Citizens Youth Clubs (or PCYC). “Something I’d like to stress is the good work that the Police-Citizens Youth Clubs do”, Tracy explains. “I am honored to be working in coordination with PCYC. What they do for young people at risk is absolutely phenomenal, from anger management to adventure programs, they cover it all”.
Jack Wighton of the Canberra Raiders
(who volunteers for Police Citizens Youth Clubs)
Recently, Tracey was fortunate to have Jack Wighton of the Canberra Raiders (who volunteers for PCYC) assist with a session. Tracey noted wryly: “it was a bit embarrassing that I didn’t know who he was as my uncle is Ray Warren – the voice of rugby league. Just as well Jack has a sense of humor.”
Cheryl O’Donnell from the PCYC had wonderful words for the benefit that Tracey’s equine therapy program provided for the young people that they help. “We have been utilizing Tracey Durr and equine therapy ever since she started her business. We can’t speak highly enough of benefits to the young people attending the program.
Learning to step back from escalating situations
“We’ve seen vast changes in young people who have been attending regular sessions with Tracey. One of our young participants last week acknowledged that because of this program he has been able to use the techniques taught by Tracey and step back from escalating situations. He told us he is now much calmer and able to control his emotions and respects others’ feelings.”
Learning and practicing the tools to regulate emotions is a key. Observing the horses’ body language assists with being able to recognize our own, and other’s body language. The clients practice bringing a horse’s energy up; such as when you want them to move away or go faster; and to lower their energy, like when approaching a horse. Parents will appreciate the technique: “This is like sneaking grated veggies into a Bolognese for the kids. They get to practice regulating their emotions to achieve the activity set out with the horse without realizing its therapy,” notes Tracey.
The therapy is often used in conjunction with other therapies. “It’s really important to say that equine therapy is part of a holistic approach, to be used as part of a mental health plan.”
Visible good results reward the facilitator
Says Tracey, “I am blessed because the work I’m doing is just outrageously rewarding. The results have been phenomenal, to witness disengaged youth when they start, to have them arriving with a confident hand shake, eye contact and a smile. I’m 47 and I’ve dabbled in lots of different careers. I know it sounds corny, but for the first time in my entire life, I know now I’m doing what I was put on earth to do.” Tracey often gets asked if she still instructs riding and re-educating horses – the answer is yes however she has an experienced instructor to help her out.
“I’ve always been passionate about helping people, and I’ve always been passionate about helping horses. I’m just privileged that I’m combining both together. My goal is to provide a safe, fun and non-judgmental space for growth.”