A herd of horses, grazing on a farm in Sussex, is bringing hope to military veterans struggling to integrate back into civilian life. Sun Tui, their owner, founder of our Christmas charity, the Dare to Live Trust, says that often a transformation can be seen in veterans’ behaviour within minutes of meeting the horses. “It’s so powerful,” she says. “After five or 10 minutes they look at you, and then back at the horse and it’s as if a light has come on. There are tears; they remember what they felt like before they joined the army.”
The Dare to Live Trust’s one, two and three-day veteran programmes, a combination of unmounted exercises with horses and classroom-based activites, have been an unprecedented success since they were introduced in 2011. They are currently available to 30 former military personnel a year, many of whom have no previous experience with horses, but the charity is urgently trying to raise funds to offer more former servicemen a chance to participate. “It’s an accelerated learning and wellbeing course that is having therapeutic outcomes and easing the transition to civilian life for many military personnel” Sun Tui explains. “It’s incredibly fast and effective. The neural pathways are recreated so there is no going back.”
As an army child, whose father served in Bosnia, Sun Tui is aware of the challenges military personnel can encounter as they try to fit into civilian life. She also understands what it is like to live without hope, having suffered severe depression in her twenties and thirties. “I had endless psychotherapy sessions but they never totally cured me. Then after the birth of my third daughter, out of the blue I decided to go riding at the local yard and it stopped the depression in its tracks. Since that day I’ve been around horses every day of my life.”
Convinced that horses could help others deal with grief and depression she travelled to America to study Equine Assisted Learning and Therapy, training with equine facilitated psychotherapists Kathleen Barry and Linda Kohanov. “I began to envisage a programme for wounded veterans using horses,” she explains. “The first participants came to me through word of mouth and the whole thing spiraled from there.”
Many of the participants on the Dare to Live Trust’s courses are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and are unable to feel safe. They’re anxious, stressed and socially excluded or unable to communicate with their loved ones. “Horses can read intention and they mirror it,” Sun Tui says. “If you’re trying to make them walk in a circle but are feeling something totally different they will pick up on it.”
At the beginning of the course, applicants are encouraged to walk towards the herd of horses, stopping as soon as a horse makes any kind of gesture. “We then get them to watch that horse and everything else in the environment at the same time, in a sort of soft state of focus,” Sun Tui explains. “This is where the magic happens. Within five or 10 minutes they are calm and the horse is engaging.”
This state of calm presents an ideal opportunity for new learning and conversations about thoughts and feelings – which take place in a classroom, between the 40-minute horse therapy sessions. “Often its when the participants begin to switch off completely that the horses respond to them most,” Sun Tui continues. Exercises such as moving the horse around an obstacle, are a metaphor for the journey to get a job or to deal with difficulties within a relationship. “It’s important to remember that it’s never an event itself that causes trauma, its how we perceive it. We get stuck thinking and feeling about it in a certain way; the horses help us to move on from this. They change the experience.”
On completion of the full three-day programme, participants are awarded a Pearson Assured Crossfields Institute programme certificate for Interpersonal Skills Training.
Large organisations such as Combat Stress and Help for Heroes have begun to signpost wounded veterans to the Dare to Live Trust, while others still come through word of mouth. The courses are run both on Sun Tui’s farm in Sussex and in Scotland; she hopes to host courses in other parts of the country from next year. “Research shows that spending any time with a horse – even if it’s just hanging out with them in a field – can be beneficial to your mental wellbeing,” she says. “As a means of targeted therapy it is incredibly powerful. You’re not sitting in a room talking about your problems, you’re hanging out with a horse.” On completion of the full three-day programme, participants are awarded a Pearson Assured Crossfields Institute programme certificate for Interpersonal Skills Training.
As yet there has been little formal research into the benefits of equine therapy. Analysis of Dare to Live’s participants has shown an improvement in trauma symptoms, mental health, wellbeing, and social functioning up to eight months post programme but the Trust is working on a research study with Kings’ College, London to consolidate these findings.
For Sun Tui, however, the astonished faces she witnesses after each course are evidence enough. “The transformation is so moving – and so quick,” she says. “This morning I looked into the eyes of a broken man but by the end of the day he had the one thing that enables you to rebuild your life – hope.”
DERBY HOUSE CHRISTMAS CHARITY APPEAL
The Dare to Live Trust is Derby House’s Christmas Charity for 2014.
To donate to the charity, click here