Grace Barlow & Mia
Grace Barlow openly admits she has problems with managing anger. But the 18-year-old girl I meet one sunny Thursday morning is – in her own words -”very chilled”. And helping the Federation College youth VCAL student centre herself is Mia, her new four-legged friend through Equine Learning Experiences Australia.
“It’s a lot like therapy. The horses feel how you feel and make you think about how you act,” Grace says. “If they are backing away, you have to check in with yourself. It helps you de-stress. The horses are chilled so you’ve got to be chilled too and that all really helps with the outside world.”
Based at Unicorn Park and Equestrian Centre just off the Midland Highway at Clarendon, the program teaches people to reconnect with their emotions by connecting with horses. Founder Emily McVeigh says it helps people listen to their body’s intelligence and their sensory awareness, feelings and emotions as well as their head.
“Western society is very head based, very cognitive,” Ms McVeigh says. “But there are a lot of studies that show our heart and gut also have neuro processing centres and an intellect of their own. “I am a qualified Mind Body Integration coach and there are loads of studies on accessing the intelligence of our bodies. Horses live through that intelligence. If there is a predator on the hunt for a kill several kilometres away, horses will be able to pick up on this with their acute awareness around energy and intention.
“We learn at a young age not to listen to our intuition but to listen to our head.”
Ms McVeigh says program participants become close to their horses by listening to their own bodies.
“A horse can tell if a person is connected to themselves or not. If you’re not connected to yourself, how do you expect others to connect to you?
“Say you’re feeling stressed in the office. You will feel it in your body first and then your head but by the time it reaches your head it’s too late, you’ve already reacted. “If you listen to your body you will respond, not react.”
Ms McVeigh initially became interested in life coaching when she helped a Melbourne drug-addicted friend realise his potential. “He was so intelligent and had so much to offer. By tapping into his strengths, he completely turned his life around,” Ms McVeigh says.
After moving to Ballarat to raise her family, Ms McVeigh was watching an SBS program which showed American prisoners undergoing rehabilitation using wild mustangs.
“It talked about all the things people should do – patience, respect, kindness, healthy boundaries. “I rang my husband straight away. It combined my love of horses and life coaching. I just love seeing people be the best they can be.”
Ms McVeigh says she was one of the first equine learning professionals to be trained in Australia, drawing upon her coaching. She has co-hosted American equine assisted learning trainers and has had ongoing mentoring from the US-based Wisdom Horse Coaching to become proficient over the past four years. “This particular coaching based model has been successful in Europe and the United States for many years now, however is quite new to Australia. “I’m not a therapist, I’m a life coach, so it was important I continued my training in this field of horses helping humans while staying connected to the coaching model. “This program is very rare in Australia, with only one other therapy-based model operating across the country.”
In 2010, Ms McVeigh was working for disability recruitment firm Finding Futures and was concerned by the number of clients “going through the same motions week after week. I told (then CEO) Bryan McCormack I could get these people unstuck through horses.” The Finding Futures team trialed the program as a professional development day, with profound results. “Some of them said it was the most powerful experience they’d ever had. It really shows up how people operate in a team.”
Ms McVeigh began working with 12 Finding Futures clients and, after the 10-week program finished, nine had already started working or volunteering. She also received clients from the Committee for Ballarat’s Young Adult Empowerment Program and Phoenix P-12 Community College, which was initially just a one-off VCAL careers day.
“They came out with their arms crossed and just didn’t want to be there but, by about halfway through, about half a dozen did a massive back flip.”
Some of the Phoenix students who have completed the program spoke at this year’s International Women’s Day event, have already done a Ballarat Wildlife Park fundraiser and are mentoring girls going through this year’s course. Last week, three of the girls spoke to the Leadership Ballarat and Western Region group. “We were very proud of them facing such a daunting task as only a few months ago they were not turning up to school. “Two girls from this year’s program were just nominated students of the week which was a huge turnaround.”
Federation College VCAL teacher Louise Rippon says driving back to school after the girls’ first session was incredibly positive. “They all said they would use the thoughts and strategies,” Ms Rippon said. “Within two weeks, each student was able to say they left feeling calmer and more confident.” She said most students taking part were aware they had personal issues like depression, anxiety and anger management but were prepared to embrace what the program could do for them. “Some applied and some we tapped on the shoulder and said ‘we think this could be really beneficial for you'."
Isabelle Papworth, 17, said the program has already taught her to “calm down and go with the flow, not get so anxious. I’m learning to take notice of what’s going on in my head and what my thoughts are doing,” Isabelle said.
Teygen McCarthy, 20, says it’s also about self-management and learning how to deal with issues. “It’s really good, I’m really enjoying it,” Teygen said.
Ms McVeigh said the program was also about leadership qualities. “We’re developing some beautiful leaders out of this,” Ms McVeigh said. Yuille Park Community College is also taking part in the program, which engagement officer Simone Gilbert said is addressing the students’ emotional needs. Ms Gilbert said four grade five students participate and have responded very well. “They’ve developed that connection with themselves,” Ms Gilbert said. “They are learning lifelong learning skills. It’s been an amazing program for us.”
Sue’s 19-year-old daughter Jess has a disability and one of her favourite programs is ELEA. “She’s always been interested in horses,” Sue said, adding Jess had also enjoyed Riding for the Disabled programs. “It’s just that guided interaction with the horses.
“After every session she is up and engaged, ready to take on any new task again.
“It’s had an amazing impact on Jess. It’s helped turn her into a bright, happy, engaged person.”
Graintech Engineering Pty Ltd is sponsoring ELEA to travel to Canberra for the November Unbridled horse festival to showcase equine assisted learning.
“A recent study showed 54 per cent of teenage girls are impacted by depression and anxiety and over 30 per cent of teenage men. “These figures are quite staggering so it is an honour and a privilege to be in a role whereupon we can support our young people to learn to connect with themselves again in a healthy and meaningful way. “In partnership with the Ballarat YMCA, we are both working together to support our youth to access our programs.”
Earlier this year, the YMCA asked Ms McVeigh at speak at International Women’s Day where $2000 was raised towards putting students through the 2015 schools program but the community has also been urged to get behind the program. “We are currently launching a leadership program and team building program focused on the corporate sector. We are looking for our corporate programs to help go towards funding part of our school’s programs as funding is always an issues for our local schools. “We are also offering sponsorship packages to local businesses and organisations whereupon they can support youth access these programs. “We’ve got enough runs on the board, now it’s about what we can do to make the program sustainable for our young people and being a bit smart on how we run the business to ensure it continues to grow.”