Albert (not his real name) and his mother were standing under a big gum tree in the middle of the paddock on a hot summer’s day.
Albert said “I know not to move” when he saw a horse walking towards them. The mare began nuzzling his hair with her nose, backwards and forwards. When she was finished, a gelding began walking towards them from the other side. Albert couldn’t contain himself any longer and stepped in front of him and hugged his chest. The gelding’s response was to stop immediately, bend his neck and place his chin on Albert’s back.
This was the beginning of their first Eagala Model HAY (Horses Assisting You) session. Later in the session, Albert was squatting down examining the face of the mare who had lowered her head almost to the ground. His mother was standing behind and over him when he suddenly jumped up, hitting her on the chin. He said, “I just keep doing it and I don’t know why. I just keep hurting people.” Albert and his mother are survivors of family violence.
Albert couldn’t decide which horse he liked the most, so he called them Al and Bert. When he was working with Al, she would lower her head so that her eyes were at the same level as his. She would walk at the same pace as him, stop as soon as he stopped and keep her head in this same position. Where there is family violence, mothers suffering from diminished physical and emotional capacity find it difficult to fully see and hear their children, to be present for them or to maintain a routine due to their situation.
Over the course of sessions, Albert was able to talk about his feelings and confident enough to tell her about a frighting situation he found himself in when visiting his father. He learned to communicate clearly through his body language when zigzagging Al through rows of cones. Being energetic, he became aware that he had to regulate his emotions and movements in order to complete the ground-based activities. He was allowed to discover this for himself as Eagala is solution-oriented. He remembered what happened in the previous session and what he learned. On arriving for sessions, he was eager to say hello to the horses. At the end of sessions, he would walk Al into the paddock by himself, unclip the lead rope and talk to her for a while. She may have been the only one to listen to his secrets.
Having a Mental Health Specialist and an Equine Specialist in sessions increases the emotional and physical safety of the clients and the horses. Also, Eagala has a Code of Ethics that both professionals work under. Sessions began and ended the same way to provide continuity, structure and predictability and include doing fun things, as it is through play that children learn. What is learned in sessions can be transferred to everyday life situations.
In their last session, Albert and his mother were asked to create a picture of what they had learned. Albert immediately began making a horse shape with cones. He found a long rope and fashioned a heart shape around his horse. He then encouraged his mother to add to the picture. She wrote something on the ground. When asked to share their picture, Albert said, “Horses have big hearts and are full of love” and his mother said, “I learned that horses are all different, just like people.”
She also added that she now engages with each of her children differently and that she had seen Albert’s confidence and self-esteem grow over the sessions.
Fay McCormack BA. MA. is the co-ordinator of the Eagala Model HAY (Horses Assisting You) program at Nexus Primary Health, the only Community Health Service providing in Australia with such a program. For almost 10 years, the program has catered for a wide range of clients and issues. They have also held individual and group professional development sessions for service providers and corporate businesses.