Helen with therapy horse Rowan
By Victoria McGuin
Many of us have heard of the term ‘horse whisperer’ – a trainer skilled at recognising the emotional needs, motives and desires of a horse. But how many of us know that this can work the other way around? A horse can become a ‘human whisperer’. Victoria McGuin recently found out just how this can happen.
Driving along the Palmwoods/Hunchy border almost every day, I would see a sign for the Equine Alliance, with large paddocks, an arena, horses roaming and an occasional flurry of visitors. My curiosity piqued, I called the number on the sign and soon found myself meeting these magnificent steeds and the woman who cares for them, Helen Sorensen.
This generous acreage is home to five generations of Helen’s family, which began with her grandparents, John and Juliet Larard in 1948.
In the 1960s Helen joined the Nambour Pony Club, which initiated her mother, Hazel Larard, into the world of horses. She became publicity officer, catering organiser and then secretary, whilst three of her children became Pony Club instructors. “We have had horses on our property for 60 years now,” says Helen.
“In the mid ‘70s my mother was approached about using the horses to work with kids with disabilities, and so she started up the Palmwoods Riding for Disabled’ (RDA). It eventually became a fully-fledged charity and needed autonomy, so moved from our home.”
Helen’s mother received multiple awards for her generous work over the years, including Quota Woman of the Year in 1982, a British Empire Medal for services to the community in 1986, and a Certificate of Merit in the Sunshine Coast Hall of Fame in 2004. Helen herself was a recipient of a Palmwoods Citizen of the Year Award for services to the disabled in 1997.
“I was an RDA coach and trained as a counsellor, then in 2002 I went to work in the US and researched how to use horses in mental health. I began training with the EAGALA model of equine-assisted psychotherapy, which recognises that horses create metaphors that may represent something for the clients.”
Helen returned home, with a determination to help the community with her new method. “Horses have a natural ability to read and give people feedback. We encourage them to be honest. But this only works with horses who aren’t being told what to do.
“In other environments, if a horse puts its ears back it will be corrected or punished. If a horse is trained to ride it will behave in a certain way. We asses our horses for safety, but we don’t ‘correct’ them, so they can be true in their reactions.”
Some of Helen’s horses are ex-competition horses, some are no longer ‘wanted’, a couple have been rescued. “We have eight in the therapy herd and my husband, Milton, breeds horses, so some of these in the paddock are part Arab.”
This mix of horses makes up Equine Alliance, a place where horses provide therapy and guidance for people dealing with anything from anxiety, to abuse, to autism.
“Horses are sentient beings, with a connection to people,” explains Helen. “They respond immediately to what is happening in the moment, and can read body-language and non-verbal signals. Thanks to this they can mirror our emotions and intentions, and help us learn.”
There is no riding involved. The person comes in, walks around and interacts with the horses, and may do certain activities – while the team observe and offer feedback on the situation.
“A horse will start representing someone or something in that person’s life, even the person themselves – and when the person identifies with the horse the therapy starts. They can often make a shift and process things through working the horse, without talking to a human being.”
Helen remembers one child who found the horses began clashing with each other. “We asked what he thought was happening and he said, ‘They are fighting over me’, which was what he needed at that time, someone to fight for him.”
A teenager was followed around by a large Shire horse, Rowan, who wouldn’t leave him be. The boy was getting quite annoyed; then Rowan lowered his muzzle across the boy’s shoulder and chest, which created a ‘lightbulb’ moment.
“He realised this was what he did when he bullied people, and said, ‘This is what it must feel like when I stand over people.’ He no longer does it.”
The horses are valuable conduits for self-awareness, and people develop skills with them that they can then transfer to life. “One girl who came on a strength-based program made a clear friendship with a horse, which helped her learn to make friends at school.
Helen has had adults with high anxiety who have managed to do things they hadn’t tried for years. “Horses are really good at grounding people. Your brain is no longer ‘busy’, you have to be present with a horse.”
One lady who suffered from panic attacks when travelling found that if she mentally put her hand back on the horse she went straight back to a feeling of calm.
“I’ve had children with violent behaviours turn up with a bodyguard, and they have not shown that behaviour here.”
Helen believes the reason for this is that most of their behaviours have been for survival, “so they learn to see themselves as the horse see them, and it’s different”.
The horses themselves are well-loved by Helen and her team, which is vital to their effective ‘whispering’. I watch as Helen opens the arena gate for them to roam the paddocks – they are all calm and many come over to say ‘hello’ and receive a stroke before they head out.
“There are two things horses need to feel safe, and that is cogency and consistency,” Helen shares. “Cogency in what we do and say and consistency in how we behave – and we provide that.
“We don’t imprint our ‘stuff’ on the horses, or the visitors, as it is the honesty of their experience that we are looking for. It is very powerful work.”
For more information on Equine Alliance programmes, contact: 0408 067664 or www.equine-alliance.com.au