Building trust with a traumatised thoroughbred.

Building trust with a traumatised thoroughbred. Photo: Sclla Sayer

This article is based on one I wrote for the Tasmanian Quaker Newsletter entitled Seeing that of God through my work with Horses. I was then asked to share with Australian Friends how my ever-deepening connection with the ‘Spirit of Equus’ supports my personal, spiritual and professional journey through life. This adventure is constantly evolving and full of surprises.

At this moment (27 July), I am resting for a moment between an extraordinary week with the American Indian Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation doing a combination of art and equine therapy and travelling on to Scotland to work with a charity offering therapeutic equestrian vaulting to children and adults with special needs. I sometimes pinch myself in wonderment as to how I actually arrived here!

Five years ago, I let go of my previous professional commitment to government agencies working to support children and young people who are at risk of abuse, neglect, homelessness, offending and other trauma. This opened the door to what feels like my true life purpose — to partner with horses in helping individuals, families, groups and communities take steps towards personal and collective health, expanded awareness and reparation of the hurt in themselves, others and the planet.

I set up Chiron Horse Programs, a service which offers ‘equine-facilitated therapy, education and re-creation’ in partnership with Michael Drell, a younger man who is also trained in this kind of nature-based therapy. He has worked at grass roots level with people ‘living on the edge’ in a range of different countries, communities and settings from street work to institutions. We complement one another in many ways but share a passionate belief in the possibility for all people to access their better self or what I see as ‘that of God’. We are humbled by how interaction with horses permits people who are so defended against pain, fear and grief to let their light shine — even if it is only for a moment.

My training in the relatively new field of equine-facilitated therapy and education has taken me to Victoria, Queensland, Minnesota, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. I have woven together many of the threads drawn from my past careers in education, social welfare and even art history, as well as my life-long love of and experience with horses, to create a rich and textured fabric to support the diverse needs of those who seek support from us and a ‘community’ of up to a dozen horses.

We provide a tailored range of coaching, facilitation, therapy and educational services, most of which involve the co-facilitation of horses in the process. I also help in the healing and rehabilitation of horses who have experienced physical or emotional damage or distress. Family support, youth and mental health services, child protection, schools, counsellors and medical practitioners refer people to us and word of mouth brings a gentle stream of enquiries.

We have provided services to individuals and groups including:

  • Children who are not coping with mainstream education
  • People experiencing grief, loss, anxiety, attachment and trust issues
  • Clients with mental health conditions on their rehabilitation journey
  • Refugee migrants adjusting to new life and culture in Tasmania
  • Young women who are homeless and living in sheltered accommodation
  • Children and young people dealing with destructive emotions and depression
  • Families who are seeking to re-story their patterns of interaction, and
  • Teams of professionals keen to gain insight into their group dynamics.

I love this work and I am deeply grateful to be able to do it, but it is not without profound ethical challenges for me. I believe that horses have a power that is uniquely transformative when humans are alive to their essentially ‘wild’ nature. We open ourselves to growth on every level — physical, emotional and spiritual — when we invite them into our world with humility and respect.

I do not believe that horses are on this earth for us to ride. There are times when I find it painful and confronting to see them even domesticated and trapped in yards, stables or paddocks. If we are ever ‘lifted by them’ (a phrase given to me by a young man from Burundi who described his first ride during one of our programs in this way), it is an enormous privilege.

Personally we each have to find our own ethical ‘line’ and I remain vigilant to any signs in my horses that the work I ask them to do is affecting them adversely — physically or emotionally. I am totally committed to ‘bitless riding’ and this conscientious objection to the use of metal in the mouth of my horses now excludes me from the mainstream equestrian world of competition where bits are still compulsory in many disciplines. I am horrified by many training methods and instruction that I see used on horses and young riders.

I was relieved to find a Quaker-based ‘touchstone of spiritual guidance’ through the Advices and Queries No 44:

All life is interrelated. Each individual plant and animal has its own needs, and is important to others. Many species in Australia and worldwide are now extinct and many more are endangered. Do you treat all life with respect, recognizing a particular obligation to those animals we breed and maintain for our own use and enjoyment? In order to secure the survival of all, including ourselves, are you prepared to change your ideas about who you are in relation to your environment and every living thing in it?

This invitation to reflection sits comfortably with where I am on my spiritual journey and it echoes the Gestalt theory and practice which is currently inspiring me in my professional practice. I am part-way through a two-year training course being offered in Victoria by the Gestalt Equine Institute of the Rockies. ‘Gestalt’ means ‘whole’ and the Query opens with the statement confirming the reality of ‘inter-being’ and raises questions we should all ask ourselves when we impose our choices on a member of another species.

The use of horses in therapy has grown rapidly over the last decade, popularised by many extraordinary experiences including that of Rowan Isaacson, the eponymous ‘Horse Boy’ of the film and charitable foundation, which supports children with autism. There are many models of practice where horses are involved in therapy and education. These include prison and addiction recovery programs, leadership programs and outdoor education settings. Horses can play a role within theoretical paradigms based on clinical, analytical or experiential approaches. Their potency as mythological or archetypal symbols and their role in many spiritual traditions as the means of communication between Heaven and Earth is also at the core of some of the more unconventional training and client experiences.

After my experience in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation last week, I am filled with a mixture of humility, grief, optimism and excitement. I was invited by Dr Elizabeth Warson from George Washington University to join her and her students in a pilot program in the windswept home of the Lakota Nation, to whom horses have a deep significance on every level. Elizabeth and her team were exploring using culturally responsive art and equine therapy together for children, adults, families, many of them living with extreme poverty, dispossession, substance abuse and poor health.

I have been honoured with an invitation to return next year if sufficient funding can be sourced. For now I will treasure my memories of vast horizons, wandering bands of horses, wheeling eagles, Sundance drums, endless road works, dust, no plans, distances, portentous skies, the synthesis of Christianity with tribal belief and ritual, the open-hearted children, and the kindness of those who are members of the poorest community in the United States to a strange hybrid white woman, born in Scotland and now living in Tasmania. It was the spirit of the horse that led me there and I am profoundly grateful.


A little Lakota girl cuddles Scilla's fell pony at the Pine Ridge art session where she hurt her leg. Photo: Scilla Sayer

Through the gifts, connections and insights that horses present to me I believe that I connect with ‘that of God’ in all beings. Through the work I try to find ways to respond to George Fox’s invitation to:

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

If you are interested in knowing more about how horses help humans, or about the Pine Ridge project, or would like to meet the horses, please contact me via email: scilla.sayer[at] or on (03) 62396 406.

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