Sun Tui, who founded the Dare to Live Trust, which uses horses to help ease wounded veterans back into civilian life, describes a poignant moment on one of the courses.
“A particularly angry soldier joined the programme a couple of years ago. He’d lost contact with his family, he wasn’t in the right mindset to hold down a job and he felt he had nothing to live for.
I took him straight out into the horse’s field and our pretty little Arab caught his eye. She was looking particularly beautiful that day and as she quietly grazed in the sunlight. The soldier stared at her but the Arab kept her head down.
Meanwhile Jigsaw, our elderly riding school pony, was looking at him intently. He began making his way towards us, shuffling along in a mouldy sweet itch blanket, his mane disheveled from rubbing against the fence.
I asked the soldier if he’d noticed any of the horses trying to connect with him. “Well he is,” he said grumpily, pointing at Jigsaw. “But I like that Arab over there.”
It’s not my place to suggest clients connect with a particular horse but I knew from past experience that Jigsaw only paid attention to those who really needed some support.
He was close to us now, ears pricked, gazing into the soldier’s face – so I started to tell him a bit about this scruffy old pony.
Jigsaw was a brilliant riding school pony, ridden by numerous children every day, but as his sweet itch grew itchier and more painful he lost patience and grew bitter. He started to bite and buck children off and push people around. He became dangerous, quite frankly, until we took him in and loved him and he began to show some respect.
When I’d finished, I pulled off Jigsaw’s blanket so the soldier could see his beautiful tri-colour coat underneath. Tears began to roll down the soldier’s face. “His story is a bit like mine,” he said.
I opened the pen and the two of them stood there together in silence. Great big tears were rolling down Jigsaw’s face too and plopping onto the floor. It was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen, particularly given horses don’t have tear ducts.
These two grumpy, violent men were inseparable for the rest of the course, which was a blessing for me as Jigsaw is notoriously difficult to catch.
The soldier went home a different person and has since rebuilt his relationship with his family based on trust and respect, which was exactly how he communicated with Jigsaw.”
Hugh Forsyth, a military veteran who specialised in bomb disposal, lived behind closed curtains, terrified of socializing or even getting out of bed. Then he met KoLi, a purebred Connemara, on an equine therapy course in Sussex, and the haze began to lift. “It was as if a light bulb has been switched on,” he says. “I didn’t realise how much rage and hurt I was walking around with until then.” Hugh is now operations director of the Dare to Live Trust, a charity that uses horses to help wounded military veterans adjust back into civilian life – and is keen to tell as many people as possible how horses gave him back his future.
When he was 18 Hugh watched six people get into a vehicle in Northern Ireland, which subsequently exploded before his eyes. “I was first on the scene; I don’t think I was ever the same again,” he says. By the time he joined the three-day programme, a combination of exercises with horses and classroom workshops, he’d witnessed other traumas and had been signed off work for nearly 10 years. “I was heavily medicated but still I couldn’t work,” he explains.
Hugh had no experience of horses; he’d never so much as touched one. “I imagined the course would involve stroking them and helping out around the farm but we were taken straight out to their paddock,” he explains. “KoLi stopped eating and walked right over to me and stood there, ears pricked, staring at me. I thought this was what they all did but then Sun Tui said ‘looks like we know who you’ll be working with these next three days’. I couldn’t believe it.”
The first day was spent building a rapport with the horses – this was easy for Hugh as KoLi wanted to be near him at all times. After each 40-minute session the group, which included Hugh’s wife Tina and several other veterans and their partners, would move to the classroom for discussions about how to build rapport and how your emotions can affect you ability to build relationships.
“When I got into the car at the end of the day Tina and I looked at each other and started giggling. I was like ‘what the hell happened there?’” Hugh says. “I couldn’t take the smile off my face.”
Day two was about boundaries. Sun Tui asked Hugh to approach KoLi not by barging up to him but slowly, stopping every time he noticed the horse reacting to him. “It taught me about the invisible rings that both horses and humans have around them and how important it is to take note of other people’s behavior,” Hugh says. “You can’t just barge into an office and ask for a pay rise.”
These exercises also helped him to differentiate between his various emotions. “I thought I was feeling fear but actually it was vulnerability,” he says. “I would notice the horse’s expression changing as I approached and would start wondering what I’d done wrong. But actually I’d done nothing to upset him. It was just a signal for me to pause – and when I did KoLi would start approaching me instead.”
By the third day, Hugh was able to move KoLi around a paddock without touching him. “Sun Tui placed a bucket of water in the centre of the paddock which represented my stress,” Hugh explains. “On KoLi’s second loop around the pen he knocked it over, which was exactly what I wanted him to do.” KoLi also helped him to become more assertive – he was encouraged to be firm with him, asking him to step away when he got too close. “It’s ok to say no,” Hugh says. “Beforehand if someone asked me to do something I’d say ‘yes’ even if I had too much on my plate.”
The three-day course marked the start of a new phase in Hugh’s life. Afterwards he made the 40-minute journey to the farm four times a week to spend time with the horses. “Sun Tui couldn’t get rid of me,” he says. “I’d ask for any job, any excuse to be in contact with Koli and the others.”
Hugh’s transformation from broken human to a man with both confidence and hope inspired Sun Tui to run her courses for veterans as an official charity, Dare to Live – and she offered Hugh the job of operations manager. “She told me that she needed a veteran who could talk to other veterans at their level,” Hugh explains. “I accepted the role, which was a huge step for me as I hadn’t worked for so long.”
Soon afterwards the charity Walking with the Wounded, which raises funds for the re-education and re-training of wounded servicemen and women, contacted Hugh to suggest he also train as an equine facilitator. “I qualified in March this year and I have my own clients and I am also a support facilitator on the Dare to Live Veterans Programme,” he says.
Hugh still can’t believe how much his life has changed in the past three years. Since he started spending time with horses his relationship with his family has improved no end; he has an exciting career and a new hobby. “I’m a keen rider now,” he says. “I spent time recently on a ranch in Texas.”
Through his work with the Dare to Live Trust he hopes he can help other military veterans to a new start. “It’s like a reset button has been pressed,” Hugh says. “I’ve been taken back to the time when I was 18 and had an enthusiasm for the world.”
DERBY HOUSE CHRISTMAS CHARITY APPEAL
The Dare to Live Trust is Derby House’s Christmas Charity for 2014.
TOMORROW (Tuesday) is our Dare to Live Trust Christmas Shopping Day where 10 per cent of our daily sales will be given to the charity. To donate to the charity, click here
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