Before creating our Hoofbeats Sanctuary we ran some trials to find out exactly what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to using horses to heal vulnerable children.

We trialed private sessions, small group sessions (with a maximum of 4 children in the group) and large group sessions (with a maximum of 8 children in the group). We trialed programs where the program facilitators were qualified mental health practitioners as well as qualified Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT)/ Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) practitioners, where the facilitators had an EAT/EAL qualification only and where the facilitators had neither a mental health qualification or an EAT/EAL qualification but had experience with horses and prior experience in mentoring programs.

What we found was that every type of program resulted in significant shifts in how the children felt about themselves and their place in the world, regardless of the level of formal qualifications that the facilitators held.

What we also found was:

  • neither the children nor their care-givers wanted the program to end, or as one youth worker said, “the worst thing about this program is that it ends”. Sending a child on a 6 week program had benefits but how long could those benefits be sustained once the children were no longer in the program? Had we given them sufficient tools for them to find a pathway to a positive future? Or had we just given them an amazing and hugely beneficial experience that then came to an end all too quickly?

  • we needed a more affordable model if we were going to be able to help as many children as possible (throughout our trials, all the facilitators we used had their own EAT/EAL businesses and charged us their usual rates – which are extremely high because so are their costs; horses are expensive critters to keep)

  • children impacted by trauma almost without exception had self-worth issues which made them highly uncomfortable working in groups

  • many of the horses used in programs were clearly showing that they did not want to be there and were obviously disengaged with either the child that they were working with or the activity that they were asked to participate in, but were made to do it anyway

We realised that we could develop a program that could deliver all the benefits and remove all the issues by:

  • not having a fixed length program but instead tailor programs so that the child could continue to attend sessions for as long as they still needed support

  • inviting program graduates to join our Junior Volunteer Team so that they can remain connected with their Mentor, the horses and the Sanctuary after their program has ended

  • operating our own program using appropriately trained Volunteer Youth Mentors as program facilitators, allowing us to deliver programs at a hugely reduced cost

  • offering 1:1 Mentoring Programs rather than group programs so that the children weren’t able to compare themselves negatively against the others in their group and so that we could tailor their sessions to suit their particular needs

  • never forcing a horse to do something it didn’t want to do but instead, having a highly flexible program that allows the facilitator to change activities to ensurer that the the needs of the child and the horse and being met

In order to deliver our own programs we needed a suitable facility to operate from. Sunshine Coast Council was incredibly supportive of our plans and agreed to allow us to lease a largely unused equestrian centre in Doonan from mid 2019.