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17 September 2022
Strengthening families and students through equine therapy
Words Jessica Morris
Returning to school after the disruptions of COVID-19 has been challenging for many students. In Geelong, Victoria, this transition has been made a little easier with the help of some four-hoofed friends.
The Geelong Salvos has provided 10 students across two local schools with access to equine therapy through its Life Engaged Program. And the results have been amazing.
“Coming out of COVID-19 and social isolation, kids have found it hard to refocus at school and relate to their peers and parents,” says Life Engaged Coordinator and Social Worker Rachel Morris. “By partnering with an equine therapist through Life Engaged, a short-term program is actually having a long-term effect, strengthening families and assisting them to flourish in the community.”
The Salvos have been running the Life Engaged Program since 2020 with a mission to increase the mental wellbeing of households. Life Engaged includes a youth group, empowerment programs and school workshops. But the fourth avenue of care is the busiest – connecting students and their families to practitioners, giving them free counselling, adventure therapy, play therapy and family therapy. And, of course, equine therapy, which has been shown to help people experiencing a lack of confidence, anxiety, social insecurities, learning difficulties and neurodivergent traits.
“Equine therapy is an incredibly beneficial and transformative modality, particularly [for] children and teens as they often find it hard to talk about problems,” says equine therapist Sarah Stares, who has been linked to the
Life Engaged Program since 2021 through her business Equi-Tribe Equine Assisted Learning and Counselling.
Over eight one-hour sessions, she and the horses respond to each client’s unique needs – and it truly is a group effort. Extroverted gelding Kit is joined by the shy Arabian mare Lily, who is expecting in December. And we can’t forget Astrid or Roisin, the small but intuitive ponies who dote on children. A session will involve building and leading a horse through an obstacle course, grooming, and going for a walk or meditation.
“Watching the horses interact with one another can help support clients to reflect on their own relationships. With children, this is particularly helpful when there are challenging relationships they wish to talk about and work through, such as bullying,” says Sarah.
“I have seen the ponies laying down peacefully with a client with self-esteem challenges. This display of trust shown by the horses helped him to feel like he was a trustworthy and kind friend and supported him to grow in his capacity for self-love and trust.”
Moolap Primary School has long partnered with The Salvation Army in the Geelong region, currently working with the Bellarine Peninsula Salvos and the Geelong Corps Life Engaged Program. They have seen their students thrive since starting equine therapy.
“One student has a background of trauma. She can struggle with maintaining friendships. [Now] she has spoken about her experience non-stop and is looking at taking up horse riding as a hobby,” says principal Peter Knight.
“Our partnership with The Salvation Army is extremely worthwhile and valuable to the school. We have also had two families engaged in family therapy, and have sessions coming up with Year 3-6 students based on self-esteem and positive mental health. Anything we can do in this space to support our students and families has a direct impact on their happiness, self-worth and overall mental health.”
As the Life Engaged Program moves forward, families across the Geelong region experience the tangible love of God. And in its simplest form, that means the Salvos connecting people to the support and dignity they deserve, one life at a time.
“When I look at the life of Jesus, his message about the Kingdom of God was about connecting with people who had lack of access in society, and we see that these are schools that are working with families who are doing it tough,” says Rachel.
“The people that need these services the most are the people who can’t access them. We are excited to continue to partner and learn from these schools.”