Building bonds22 July 2019
Horses are having a profound impact on the lives of injured veterans and their partners, improving trust, connection and emotional regulation.
When participants arrive at a Mates4Mates Equine Program there is often apprehension about what’s to come. But by day five, they’re filled with a renewed sense of purpose and hope for recovery.
Mates4Mates (an initiative of RSL Queensland) offer five-day equine therapy programs, facilitated by Equine Encounters Australia, for both individual Mates and couples who have service-related physical injuries or mental illness.
Equine therapy does not involve horse riding
“Equine therapy does not involve riding – horses are used to help Mates notice and explore their issues, challenges and behaviours, and build awareness of their responses, like fear and anxiety,” Mates4Mates Clinical Psychologist Georgia Ash said.
For five days, participants are immersed in life on a horse property – building bonds with horses, cooking together, eating together and sharing time together. A horse's natural survival instinct allows them to pick-up on the energy and emotion in a person and reflect those feelings. If someone is filled with anxiety, for example, a horse will pick up on that.
Each participant will work with the same horse throughout the program to give them the opportunity to form a strong bond and learn to trust.
“Mates are never asked to revisit their past experiences. Instead all Mates are asked to participate in group discussions to assist in the processing of their daily experiences with psychologists and facilitators,” Georgia said.
Staying in the present reduces emotional escalation
“The program offers the opportunity to increase awareness and understanding around physical and psychological health impacts by encouraging participants to stay in the present and reduce emotional escalation. These skills lead to individual and couple growth and change.”
Equine Encounters Australia founder Brenda Tanner launched the programs in 2013 and started facilitating these for Mates4Mates in 2014.
Brenda said she was passionate about helping veterans reconnect emotionally, after her own father served in WWII and struggled to reintegrate back into civilian life.
Brenda and her staff are trained in equine psychotherapy, counselling or psychology to ensure participants have professional support.
“Equine assisted therapy is all about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable as that is what life is,” she said.
Reframe experiences as they happen
“Through the program participants are encouraged to reframe experiences as they happen, so rather than withdraw, get frustrated or upset, we help them reflect on what is really happening, by teaching techniques to regulate and stay in the present.
“Horses are so instrumental for therapy because they don’t judge and they don’t know your story, all they know is what is happening right here in this moment.
“It’s incredibly rewarding for myself and I feel really privileged to walk part of the journey with these people who have had such major events happen in their lives and see them turn a corner.”
Equine Therapy Programs are predominantly run in NSW and QLD, and are available at no cost to registered Mates and their partners.
To find out more about Mates4Mates Equine Programs, visit www.mates4mates.org.