Healing with horses

9 December 2021 Written by Sarah Marinos

Retired thoroughbred racehorses are proving to be valuable and sensitive assets in the world of equine therapy, and counsellor Lisa Coffey has tapped into this, sharing her knowledge with those who need it.

“I came here in not a very good state. Physically and mentally, it’s given me the space and time to work out things and unravel,” recalled Cassandra Gatt.

“I was in a paddock with a few horses and I was really struggling physically walking, and this horse came and let me lean against him and we just walked together, up and down and around, and I cried. Because he not only knew that I needed that, he was there to support it. It’s quite amazing. I love horses now. I love them.”

Gatt is one of a number of Australians benefiting from equine-assisted psychotherapy at Racing Hearts on the Mornington Peninsula. 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.

She has a team of psychologists, counsellors, mental health nurses, early childhood education specialists and therapeutic riding coaches working with their clients. “Having a mix of specialist knowledge in mental health areas is incredibly beneficial as it gives us a wealth of treatment options to choose from. This is a much better approach for the clients as each has unique and individual needs, so we tailor each plan to suit those needs,” said Coffey.

“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. One woman noticed that when she had bad thoughts about herself, her body became rigid and the horse wouldn’t walk for her. When she changed her thinking to be more positive, the horse walked.”

Coffey uses 12 retired racehorses (and is retraining four more) 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."

“We have a Shetland pony for young clients, but when she cracks it, we have to put her away! I’ve never had that with racehorses.” One of Coffey’s therapy horses is Hissing Sid, a back-to-back Warrnambool Cup winner who retired from racing in 2015.

Sid has a slow and mellow nature. “Nothing is ever a hurry for Sid! He is great for settling nerves and working with clients who are nervous, because nothing fazes him,” said Coffey.

Sid, along with another horse, Lagerfeld, recently helped approximately 70 people in Warrnambool learn more about relieving anxiety and coping with life’s challenges. “These horses provided support to those participants that no human therapist could ever offer in the same powerful way,” said Coffey. “Feedback included feelings of being heard, no judgement, extreme calmness, clear minds, relaxed body, decreased heart rates, friendship, conversation, safe touch, support and protection. For a lot of kids, it was the first time they recall experiencing some of those feelings.”

Racing Hearts also runs a popular schools wellbeing program where 14 local schools currently attend the farm in school time, working through a program they have designed to link in with the Victorian Curriculum and its Personal and Social Capabilities Framework, complementing the wellbeing work already being done within the schools. They work on themes based on feedback from the school on the individual students’ needs, however, broader themes include emotional awareness, processing and expression, identification of boundaries and how to express them in a healthy way, how thoughts and feelings impact our bodies, our behaviour and those around us including how to deal with unexpected behaviour, clear communication and safe and healthy relationships. The schools receive funding from the education department and their local shires for the program.

Racing Hearts is also piloting a school incursion program until the end of 2021, where the horses are taken to schools for sessions with students selected by the school. “Graham Salisbury was a good friend of mine, and the passing of Graham and Subzero has left a big gap in how we share the special gifts that OTT horses have to offer us, with young people and the community. The work they did was genuinely incredible. We want to honor that work by continuing it in a similar way with the addition of mental health support for the participants. The program is free for schools and entirely funded by us,” said Coffey.