This week, 7th to 14th September, is Mental Illness Awareness week. This is a time to focus on educating and informing people about mental unwellness, psychological trauma and healing in the community. This can also extend to creating special awareness for our traumatised and mistreated animals who also make up our community. Pets and other animals can need specialised trauma care as well.
Stephanie Haley is a Clinical Psychologist in Aveley and works with traumatised people. Equine trainer, Karen White, RSPCA approved RSPCA assessor, rehabilitates traumatised horses.
Karen, born in Canada and a former worker with children with disabilities, is the proprietor at Mohegan Training Centre in Henley Brook, is one such specialist. Karen says, “I had the most beautiful upbringing in Canada, riding appaloosas and paint horses with the Stonyfoot and Blackfoot Indians kids.”
Karen’s father was an engineer at Calgary Stampede and John Lyons, who has received accolades and awards for his outstanding contributions to the horse industry was her mentor. John established and strongly advocates for the more natural horse training arena called “round pen reasoning.” This is a corral without corners which allows greater connection between horse and trainer.
This gentle connection with the horse’s welfare in mind, extends to training horses for riders. Forget what you have seen in cowboy movies about “breaking in” horses where it is all about “breaking” their spirit through fear, force and aggression. Karen’s horses are not “broken in” fearfully and aggressively, bucking and kicking. Karen says, “I don’t ‘break in’ horses, I train horses for the saddle by “starting them up” through respect, gentleness, trust and spirituality.”
Clearly influenced by John Lyons gentle nature, Karen explained further, “Horses need boundaries, discipline and a purpose, just like a person does. Start them up correctly, do the foundation work so a horse should trust you to ride it. This is achieved by setting specific goals, then teaching them by use of clear signals, responsible methods, and consistency. This is a much kinder way of training. I work by putting the horse’s welfare first.”
But what about her own welfare when dealing with angry, aggressive mistreated horses? Karen emphasises that the work she does is safe. “I cannot afford to be fearful and I am very good at observing the horse’s body language and reading the situation in the pen. In thirty years working with horses, there was only two horses that were unable to be rehabilitated.”
While Karen’s passion is working with traumatised horses, Stephanie Haley, Clinical Psychologist enjoys working with traumatised people. Stephanie is currently training to work in Equine Assisted Therapy helping clients establish a trusting relationship with her therapy horse Broccoli at Mohegan Training Centre.
Horse therapy for people works differently from traditional talk therapy. It is more of a communicated “felt” sense in the body, rather than a verbal exchange. “People suffering from PTSD, complex trauma, anxiety, depression, trust and relationship issues can benefit greatly from establishing a relationship with a horse,” she says, “horses are intuitive, authentic and do not have a hidden agenda.”
During a therapy interaction, the horse may nuzzle up which can feel trusting and bonding or it may pull away from a pat, invoking in the client feelings of rejection or abandonment. Stephanie says, “There is no right or wrong. There are no expectations and no outcomes to be met, but all horse behaviour can be essential communication for the client to think about. It is seeing what unfolds in the present moment.”
This safe, real-time bodywork therapy can give clients information on their “gut-sense,” which can lead to intuition and insights on their human interactions and relationships. Stephanie, who loves working with Equine Assisted Therapy says, “Horse therapy can help people create health and heal at a deeper, intuitive level rather than learning skills and strategies traditional talk therapy can provide.”
It can be extremely empowering for a client to connect with a horse at this level. Clinical psychologists and horse trainers both create an equal relationship based on caring, communication, trust and hope. Mental Illness Awareness Week is not just about information and education, it’s about mental health where our relationships with families, friends and animals matter the most. It should not run for just seven days; mental health awareness should be incorporated into our lives every day of the year.