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