A shared vision

24 June 2022 Written by Michael Sharkie

When one of the country’s leading trainers aligns with a program designed to utilise the thoroughbred for healing and therapy, it is a match that is destined to succeed.

When Andrew Wiles, General Manager of Ciaron Maher Racing, paid a visit to an equine therapy session at Racing Hearts on the Mornington Peninsula, he wasn’t exactly sure what he was in for.

As he watched a group of retired racehorses, including former Maher-trained winners Lagerfeld and Lord Belvedere, calmly interact with a group of excited primary school children, he was blown away by the connection between the animal and the children, many of whom had never been this close to a horse in their lives.

Racing Hearts founder Lisa Coffey, formerly Racing Victoria’s education and workforce development officer, moved through the group too, taking the students through an education and wellbeing program focussed on boundaries, one of many school programs she has developed using retired racehorses as a spark for behavioural change.

“It’s pretty amazing what Lisa is doing,” said Wiles.

“To experience it firsthand and to see and hear how those students interacted with the horses, it was incredible. Lisa’s passion for this work and her drive to share it in the community, it’s just so compelling.” - Andrew Wiles

As Ciaron Maher Racing looked to further develop its social responsibility and charitable arm of its business after an initial charitable partnership with the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and more recently with Rule Prostate Cancer, Racing Hearts provided an opportunity that was aligned with both community betterment and equine welfare.

“Ciaron came out very strongly in support of the Napthine report in 2021 (A Framework for Thoroughbred Welfare). He wanted to get on the front foot and support a cause that shared the vision of that equine welfare report, a cause that put into action the words in that report,” said Wiles.

“Lisa has a strong background with the Maher family so when she came to us with a proposal it was very easy to put faith in her and back her. She is a quality person with a deep understanding of the animal and the industry. She’s very ambitious and has a big vision for the future.”

At the heart of Coffey’s vision is the want to utilise the thoroughbred for healing, while rehabilitating the horse itself in the process.

A former track work rider and qualified counsellor, Coffey has brought together her two great passions and now the Racing Hearts tagline – humans healing horses healing humans – beautifully sums up the circle of connectivity that she is striving for.

“It’s grown so fast,” said Coffey.

“Racing Hearts is in its fourth year now. When we started I was thrilled if we saw 12 clients in a fortnight. We’re now putting 250 people a week through our programs and we are expanding to three properties – that’s the impact of this therapy.”

Coffey was riding track work at Caulfield before her day job at Racing Victoria and couldn’t shake a nagging thought that consumed her each morning.

“The money isn’t great, the hours are shocking, it’s basically a thankless task but the same faces were there every day – they were there because they love the animal, they had to have the connection to the horse,” she explained.

“The more I investigated animal-assisted therapies and the research behind it, the opportunity became apparent. I studied at the Equine Psychotherapy Institute at Daylesford and began developing these programs. There is a lot more published research now about why horses are so effective in this sort of therapy.”

Coffey and the Racing Hearts practitioners work with people aged eight through to their 70s with programs designed to deal with a wide range of emotional and physical trauma and stress. Racing Hearts is focused on healing and reconnection.

“We’re all so focused on the world around us in this day and age, we live a very digital life and it’s very easy to concern ourselves with everything but ourselves, we’ve lost touch with ourselves and to a large extent we’ve lost that innate living connection with the living world, the natural world,” she explained.

“Horses are gentle animals at heart and by introducing them into our lives we can rediscover that connection through a very intuitive animal that often behaves in a way that the client needs in that exact moment. It’s mysterious and it is beautiful.”

Spurred on and driven by her passion to grow and share the benefits of equine therapy, Coffey is inspired by how ambitious Racing Hearts’ new partner Ciaron Maher is, and Coffey shares that ambition with plans to expand the Racing Hearts program internationally.

“This is a model that can be picked up by others. It benefits my soul rather than my bank balance and I’m so keen to share the program with as many people around the world as I can,” said Coffey.

“In my lifetime we’ve lost an important connection with an animal and to a degree with a part of ourselves. I want to bring that back.”