By Julieanne Horsman
Withdrawn, anxious and barely able to make eye contact. When 17-year-old Max walked into the paddock at Bringing Smiles to Life, he was a troubled young man. After traditional methods failed, Max’s mother put her faith in Heather Cambridge’s new equine-assisted learning program in a desperate attempt to get her precious son back on track.
Fast forward just three months and Max is a different person. He’s confident, happy, and always the one who offers to stay back and pack up the float, clean tack or help in general. He aspires to become a jackaroo and owes his transformation to the healing powers of horses, in particular a six-year-old retired racehorse named Line Up Girls who is affectionately known as Frankie.
Each session is designed to assist participants by offering them tools to better manage their mental health. This includes breathwork, learning to regulate emotions, progressive muscle relaxation and anxiety de-escalation.
“One thing we do every time is talk about boundaries and communication,” Heather said. “We look at the horse’s ears for signals, maintain a safe distance from the rear end, take note of body language and signs that indicate the horse’s mood. Some of the children who come along are in out of home care and they are angry, but they must learn to be calm around the horses. We also do a lot of grooming and hoof care to strengthen that bond with the horses as well as leading exercises, cavaletti and obstacle courses. We set goals with the horses and sometimes there is resistance to requested tasks but that provides an opportunity to talk, troubleshoot, find resilience, take another approach, and grow in leadership. When the horses do what they are asked, the clients are so proud of themselves. It’s wonderful to see.”
Heather was inspired to start her equine-assisted learning program after suffering the tragic loss of her husband four years ago. Her horse, a Standardbred named Fred, was a shining light during one of the darkest times in her life and she wanted others to have access to that same healing power.
“He just rescued me,” she said. “He stopped me from diving into a big, black hole and helped me pick myself up and move forward. I love working with horses and wanted to create a special resource for the local community, so I decided to study as an Equine Interaction Experience Practitioner and give it my best shot.”
Heather, who has a diploma in counselling and mental health, launched Bringing Smiles to Life at Wingham with just Fred, but soon decided he needed a friend. Despite initial reservations about taking on an off the track Thoroughbred, Heather had stumbled across Team Thoroughbred NSW on social media and reached out.
“I was really interested in the work of Team Thoroughbred and wanted to give a retired racehorse a quality home,” she said. “I went out to the farm at Oxley Island and had a look at some horses. There was one I liked but the Farm Manager Bernie and Rehoming Coordinator LaToyah said there was another one better suited to what I planned to do. I trusted their judgement, had a ride, and ended up taking Line Up Girls home. He was perfect from the day he arrived. He got on well with Fred and was very patient and relaxed.”
Heather renamed the six-year-old former Gary Moore then Jenny Graham-trained gelding “Frankie” and began handling and groundwork with him. She made sure he was safe with some obedience and flexion exercises before he was introduced to her clients. Frankie’s first chance to shine was with Max and the two hit it off straight away.
“Max originally worked with Fred and when he switched to Frankie he really had to step up because of his size,” Heather said. “Max took it all in his stride and I started observing some really tender moments between the two like Frankie smelling Max, turning into him, following him around.”
So far there has been plenty of interest from the community in Bringing Smiles to Life and most of the participants are under the age of 18. Many have tried traditional therapies like counselling and psychology but Heather’s program, which operates under the motto of slow, calm, and gentle, has a unique effect.
“I listen and ask questions and they can bring up anything they want to without any judgement,” Heather said. “I try and get them to recognise what they can learn from each situation. Understanding the value of verbal and non-verbal communication is important for these kids.”
Heather balances her time at Bringing Smiles to Life with her role as an Occupational Therapy Assistant at Manning Base Hospital’s Mental Health Unit. She is hoping as her equine-assisted learning program grows in popularity, she will be able to devote more time to it. She is also desperate to find a more permanent base in the Taree/Wingham area either with undercover facilities or space for her to erect her own shelter so the program can run in all weather.
“I just want to build the business and help more children,” Heather said. “I genuinely believe that’s what I am on this earth to do.”
For more information search Bringing Smiles to Life on facebook.
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