Equine assisted therapy racing into Victorian hearts

24 November 2022 Written by VRC

Lisa Coffey, founder of the VRC’s charity partner Racing Hearts, was recently recognised at the Racing Victoria Off the Track awards in the Emerging Retrainer of the Year category, which recognises retrainers who have been acknowledged with RV for three years or less (since August 2019) and displayed an exceptional commitment to the retraining and rehoming of retired racehorses throughout that period.

The Victoria Racing Club is proud of its partnership with Racing Hearts, providers of equine-assisted therapy with retired racehorses for disadvantaged and at-risk youth, which will support a pilot program for secondary school students interested in pursuing a career working in the thoroughbred industry.

The Racing Hearts Secondary Schools Pilot Program provides learning pathways leading to meaningful employment opportunities for young people seeking an alternative to the Victorian Certificate of Education.

The program builds on the existing Racing Hearts services that assist disadvantaged teens by providing the help and support they need to heal from past trauma through equine-assisted therapy by equipping them with essential employment skills and setting them up for future success in the community with the VCAL qualification Certificate II – Racing Industry.

Victoria Racing Club CEO Steve Rosich said in partnering with Racing Hearts, the VRC was proud to support both young people and retired thoroughbreds in developing their careers.

“The work of Racing Hearts is incredibly valuable, not only in the way it supports young people and at-risk children, but also in providing retired racehorses a meaningful second career,” Mr Rosich said.

“The VRC is honoured to partner with Racing Hearts to ensure this valuable work can continue and grow.”

Racing Hearts founder and director and Racing Victoria Off The Track ambassador Lisa Coffey said the partnership enables Racing Hearts to expand its operations to launch the pilot program, reaching even more young people in need.

“Equine-assisted therapy is life changing for so many of these kids – the connection they form with horses develops their self-esteem, empathy and builds their confidence, and in return they feel the unconditional love of our horses,” Ms Coffey said.

“The Secondary Schools Pilot Program provides these kids with education and career opportunities while also helping them recover from past traumas and develop their sense of self.”

The pilot program has been designed with the Racing Hearts team of mental health practitioners and combines a year-long mental health program with a skills-based academic program. Upon successful completion of the program students will have gained a Certificate II in Racing Industry (stable hand) qualification through the Racing Industry Skills Centre RTO, equipping them with the skills required to work with racehorses in a racing stable.

Through its strong connections across the racing industry Racing Hearts will support students to develop a network within the industry, gaining valuable work experience in a wide variety of roles, from hands on work with horses to track maintenance, fashion, and administration, with the aim of assisting them to secure meaningful employment in the industry.

Further educational pathways exist with a Certificate III in Racing Industry (track rider or stable hand) qualification for students that choose to extend their schooling beyond the pilot program.

“The Racing Hearts Secondary School Pilot Program helps young people pursue a rewarding career working with horses, facilitate an expansion of Racing Hearts’ racehorse retraining program for retired thoroughbreds, and assist the racing industry in building skills and growing its workforce,” Mr Rosich said.

“We are delighted to partner with Racing Hearts to bring this pilot program to life.”

The organisation is run by counsellor Lisa Coffey, who has worked in the racing industry for most of her life. Hailing from Ireland, where she worked as an apprentice jockey teacher, and at Aidan O’Brien’s stables helping fly his horses around the world among other jobs, Coffey ended up in Melbourne purely because of the Melbourne Cup. “The Melbourne Cup is just held in such high esteem in Europe,” she said. Her job search led her to Melbourne Cup-winning trainer Sheila Laxon, riding work at her stables in Seymour. A desire to experience racing in the city took her to Peter Moody’s stables, then to Racing Victoria and then into rehoming and retraining. This led to Racing Hearts, which combines her two areas of expertise – thoroughbred racehorses and counselling people towards better mental health.

“I describe equine-assisted psychotherapy as traditional counselling offered in a non-traditional way. It’s powerful when you connect people with horses,” said Coffey.

“Some clients want to nut out challenges they face at work, at home or in a relationship. Other people fit somewhere on the full spectrum of mental health diagnoses. We might work in the paddock or in the arena, and horses are brought into sessions in different ways. Clients may sit near the horse or lead or groom a horse. But it’s far more than going into a paddock and patting ponies.

“While they’re with the horse, people become aware of the thoughts in their head, how those thoughts are impacting on their body and how things change for them when they are with the horse. They notice how the horse responds to their emotions.

Coffey uses six retired racehorses because of their versatility, trusting nature, and awareness.

“Awareness is a big part of what I do, and these horses are very responsive. They are very attuned to how a client is feeling and how they present,” said Coffey.

One of Coffey’s therapy horses is Lankan Rupee who retired in 2017 and has been on her 40-acre property since earlier this year.

“He’s a very robust-looking horse and always evokes feelings of power, excitement and strength. He helps clients when they want to tap into their energy and passion. He exudes energy, but he’s also gentle and is good for helping people with contrasting feelings and behaviours,” said Coffey.

Coffey also relies on Hissing Sid, a back-to-back Warrnambool Cup winner who retired from racing in 2015. His slow and mellow nature is a useful contrast to the higher-energy Lankan Rupee.

“Nothing is ever a hurry for Sid! He is great for settling nerves and working with clients who are, because nothing phases him,” said Coffey.