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Tackling PTSD and anxiety with horse therapy

Leading up to the ANZAC centenary, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is increasingly in the spotlight, so a program that Mates4Mates is running in conjunction with Equine Encounters Australia stood out to us – it’s all about getting ex-ADF members out of the house and developing strategies to reduce anxiety and build confidence through their interactions with their horse; AKA new best mate.

“In reading your horse, you are learning to read yourself. Once you’ve built a trusted relationship with your horse they’ll follow you without a lead line – they’re your buddy and they feel safe” – Brenda Tanner

Based in the Hunter Valley, the equine therapy program was run in Townsville for the first time in January at Ranchlands Equestrian Centre in Kelso. Program founder and certified equine assisted learning practitioner Brenda Tanner says, contrary to popular belief, the purpose is not about learning to ride horses (although participants do get in the saddle at the end of the week), it’s about building a relationship, trust and understanding with the horse to feel alive, connected and motivated again – the horse becomes a reflection of the human.

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“Horses are sentient animals and rely on their senses to feel safe – if a member of the herd feels anxious, then they will sense danger and want to take off. In reading your horse, you are learning to read yourself. Once you’ve built a trusted relationship with your horse they’ll follow you without a lead line – they’re your buddy and they feel safe.”

“At the start the blokes were anxious and wouldn’t talk to each other or get in the yard with the horses, and by the end of it they were comfortable with each other and even had a go at riding” – Steve Brunell

While many of the ex-serviceman in the January program were anxious to leave the house for an hour at a time, they were out for seven hours a day with the horses; creating a new realm of possibility. Dale Street was one of the participants and says the program – combined with the gym work he’s been doing at Mates4Mates – has given him and his wife the confidence to sign-up for the organisation’s Kokoda Trek.

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Dale Street, Rick Klima, and Steve Brunell.

“At the start of the equine therapy Brenda was hard pressed to get me in the yard at all,” Dale reveals. “I’m not one for horses, but after some words encouraging words and guidance it became easier. At the end of it all I was comfortable to be around my horse, Gift, and he followed me and did everything I asked of him. On day five I even got on his back and was lead around the yard.”

Dale will find out soon whether he’s been accepted on his next challenge: “Kokoda is something I’ve always wanted to do and now I’m training to get the legs ready,” he says, working to overcome a knee injury. “It would be extra special if we could go this year with it being the ANZAC centenary.”

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Steve Brunell wants to get his own horse after doing the program in January.

Steve Brunell, who served in East Timor and retired in 2004, was also a participant in January – he and Dale knew each other but have been catching up more frequently since. Taking part has also seen Steve venture outside the house more, and – with a background in mustering and riding as a kid – he’s now looking to get his own horse.

“You’re not going to be an expert horseman by the end of it, but it’s a good excuse to get off your backside, meet people, and share that common talking point” – Rick Klima

“Since the program I’ve been mustering every week and I would love to get myself a horse so I can ride when I do get down,” he says, his confidence showing in his easy interaction with a Ranchlands resident. “I would encourage others to do it – at the start the blokes were anxious and wouldn’t talk to each other or get in the yard with the horses, and by the end of it they were comfortable with each other and even had a go at riding. When we got back to Mates4Mates everyone was buzzing.”

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Equine therapy is about building trust with your new best mate.

Rick Klima – who lives in Townsville but actually did the equine therapy program last year in Beaudesert – was in the army for 29 years, including serving in Somalia in 1993. He admits he was initially disappointed when he found out it wasn’t about learning to ride, but as the days went on it became apparent that the actual riding was the least important aspect.

“They told us all to go stand in the yard and a horse would just come up and pick us,” tells Rick, “I didn’t believe it, but after 10 minutes a single horse had come up to all eight of us and chosen us – it was incredible – I’d never been around horses much or interacted with an animal so large. By the end of it, we all had a huge sense of achievement.

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Dale Street is now training for Kokoda with his wife.

“For me, it’s made going out easier – I find excuses not to go to places and have to force myself to do it, and a few others said that. But meeting seven other strangers and putting your trust in a huge animal you’ve had nothing to do with really helped. You’re not going to be an expert horseman by the end of it or cured of your PTSD or anxiety, but it’s a good excuse to get off your backside, meet people, and share that common talking point.”

Mates4Mates psychologist Renee Crossley says the equine therapy complements traditional talking therapy as it offers another avenue and a chance for PTSD and anxiety sufferers to put the skills they are learning into practice.  She agrees the program has given participants the confidence and motivation to give other things ago, proving that they can step outside their comfort zone.

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“As well as PTSD, anxiety and depression, the program is also good for anger management,” Renee says. “I think the success comes from the combination of being outdoors, being a part of a group, and being with the horses, which are such a calming animal. Members’ partners said they noticed a huge difference in the participants’ moods, plus a few have become more active in the centre now – using the gym, going to yoga sessions and getting involved in fitness challenges – they are generally putting things in place to make their life happier.”

Get involved

The next equine therapy program is Monday, May 11 to Friday, May 15 in Townsville. You don’t need any prior experience with horses, but you do need a referral through Mates4Mates. This organisation is free to be a part of for current and ex-serving Australian Defence Force (ADF) members who are wounded, injured or ill and their families. Anyone interested is welcome to tour the Aitkenvale Family Recovery Centre at 40 Anne Street and bring their family or a friend along. For those reading this outside business hours who urgently need someone to talk to, please contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 (24/7).

Brenda-Tanner

Brenda Tanner from Equine Encounters Australia.

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Carly Lubicz

Carly Lubicz

Carly Lubicz is combining two of her great loves — writing and getting active. Previously working as a journalist, sub-editor, and editor in newspapers and magazines; she is editor and co-founder of TheGo Townsville. She stays active with the staples of road cycling and yoga, but has recently discovered triathlon. And become addicted (apart from the swimming part). She also has a Cert III in Fitness and is passionate about improving mental health through physical activity.

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