Just over a year ago Vicki and I spent a morning at Operation Centaur in Richmond Park, drinking mugs of tea with Dr Andreas Liefooghe and listening, somewhat rapt, to him talk about the benefits of an equine-assisted therapeutic approach. The evidence is compelling, he told us, that horses can play a significant role in creating a response to complex distress.
We’d already seen snapshots of this during our Summer Camp at Trill Farm, when sessions with Sue from Awareness with Horses had left our group visibly relaxed. For some, it was because it reminded them of home; for others, it was simply because the horses were fun, and kind to them. J said that he had had a long talk with Tristan (a tranquil dappled grey), and when asked what they’d talked about he said “many things, both in his language and English,” but it was also “private”.
The post-flight phase can be overwhelming, when thoughts about what happened before, what is happening now, and what is still to come can be impossible to untangle. Horses invite communication, but they are not demanding of words; this removes the pressure of having to articulate the impossible. It allows space for a relationship to develop between person and horse which can be the catalyst for renewed reflection, and foundation for stability - hence the name of our new equine-assisted project.
It wasn’t an easy one to set up. “We want to take your young person to spend three hours around horses, and - er - then ride them” isn’t always met with enthusiasm from those with overall responsibility for the safety of others. But Wendy Firmin-Price, director of the Holistic Horse and Pony Centre in Ockham is used to working with diverse groups and her unswerving conviction in the benefits of this project is contagious, and so it began...
B started out as our most reluctant participant; wanting to take part, but with a very real fear of horses. Wendy brought out a small white pony called Bounty, and they watched each other for a while, before Bounty began to eat the hay he offered, and stood serenely while he learned to groom. Now, as the others chop and change their horses, wanting to try each others, B and Bounty stick to each other resolutely. When Jo offered to hold her while he nipped to get his hat, he agreed and added “but don’t touch my baby” and gave her a wide grin. It was the first whole sentence he’d ever offered us, and his first proper smile.
It is significant that many of the horses are rescued from neglect and abuse, and this is not lost on anyone. Explaining this briefly to K while he groomed his mare, he said “Yep, like me” and put his face against her nose.
Out in the school, it is mostly laughter. Wendy and Nancy are strict on the shape of communication. “Don’t tell them, ask them” Nancy reminded them last week, after a colourful display of equine stubbornness from Honey. “They respond to your energy” Wendy explained, so you need to keep your energy up. “Energy up!” becomes a regular call from the staff, as each participant tries to encourage their horses to follow their commands through more positive body language and posture, and mostly, it works.
In the final two weeks, the time comes to get on and ride. We are somewhat taken aback to find Wendy bringing out blindfolds. First, she pairs every one up, and instructs one to cover their eyes, before sending the partners out on an obstacle course around the school. The leader has to communicate the tasks, without saying a word and without once allowing their partner to see, and it must be done through the same gentle, positive communication they have been learning to use with the horses. For those blindfolded, it requires ultimate trust that the large, wobbling block onto which your partner had requested you climb and balance, is not going to tip beneath your feet. “When you don’t know what you’re stepping on” Wendy reminds everyone “it’s nerve-racking”.
The first time they get on the horses, the blindfolds stay on. There is a pad to sit on, but no saddle and no reins. I admit to a sense of doubt that anyone will be up for this, but they all are. Our most nervous participant is first on, beaming widely as his horse calmly moves off. Within seconds, he is calling out to Wendy to see if they can “try running”, and then, after Midnight has obliged with a short and gentle trot, he lays back with his arms behind his head, and sings at the sky.
Our final week brings out saddles, reins and the back protectors (“Noooo - REALLY we wear that?!” “Yes, REALLY you do.”). After a session in the school, where those who have ridden before (always bareback and never having to wear a 'silly hat’, they tell us, pointedly) are reminded by Wendy about respectful use of commands, sitting straight and keeping heels back. We take a trek along the surrounding bridle paths, in a rare hour of sun across the hills, and the atmosphere is both calm and buoyant. The horses know the route backwards so when there is space for a tiny bit of speed, they take it... and the riders are delighted.
At the end, once the tack is cleaned, the manure picked up and the horses put out to the field, we finish with hot chocolate and cake and reflect on what has been learned. Wendy brings out rosettes for everyone to mark the end of the course, and there is a lot of hugging. Between riders and the riding team, but mostly between the riders and their horses.
We are so grateful to everyone at the Heart Centre, and in particular Wendy and Nancy for their welcome, teaching, humour and biscuits; to Caesar, Minnie, Oliver, Bounty, Galaxy, Midnight and Honey for their patience, acceptance and the occasional displays of hilarious bloody-mindedness; to the social workers and key workers for taking a leap of faith and being open to the project; to Jo for taking this on with such gusto (it’s possible she enjoyed it just as much as the boys); to Kate, Sam, Sarah and Dave for generous provision of boots and hoodies, and to Mashood, without whom it could not have happened.