He was a little boy, a young refugee from Afghanistan. He didn’t or couldn’t speak: his carers didn’t know which. All they knew was that it was the result of atrocities he’d witnessed in his homeland.
Enter Holly Ohlson, a horsewoman for more than 40 years – coaching, training and competing in the field. Fourteen years ago she discovered equine therapy – and how a horse’s unique intuitive qualities can soothe troubled human minds.
“I’d heard about this sort of thing anecdotally over the years,” she said, “but you have to see it for yourself.”
Holly matched the young refugee boy with a pony – a horse that she knew was calm, sensitive and safe for him to be around. After the first session, the youngster started talking to the pony.
“His carers were sobbing,” Holly said.
“The thing about this bond between humans and horses, it’s just remarkable. It can unlock the most amazing things for people who feel they can’t move on.
“It was such a personal thing to watch him with the pony, to see how the trust developed between the two.”
A founding member of Arenas for Change (ARCH), Holly works with accredited mental health social worker Janelle White. Holly started Horse Sense for Humans in 2008, which is designed to work with the intuition a horse has for adults living with mental health issues.
There is no riding involved in what Holly and Janelle do, it’s all ground-based work. Neither women can know for sure how the person and the horse will react when they meet, but research has shown, as has their own many years of experience, that most people feel better when in the company of horses.
“In some of the research, they put heart monitors on horses and people,” Holly said. “It showed that after a while, the hearts started to beat in synch with both. It’s like horses can give a sense of wellness to people and that can release a lot of tension.
“Horses can give this sense of wellness to a person who is struggling. Even though horses are domesticated, they still protect themselves through flight. If they’re uncomfortable in a situation, their first instinct is to run away.
“With the horses that we use, they’re not specifically trained for the work. We just work with quiet, gentle horses who are well-humanised, been around people for a lot of time. We also work with horses which have been rescued from becoming dog food.”
Holly said it also could be a reciprocal thing: humans helping horses. “I believe that horses with a troubled past can relate to humans who have similar baggage,” she said. “With the work that we do, horses have a choice – they can participate or not. They’re loose in the paddock so they can remove themselves to the other end of the paddock if they don’t want to work with people.
“In this sort of therapy, we learn by doing, it’s not a matter of telling someone what to do. You just have to see what happens.”
The women started the program from a farm at Malua but it was destroyed by the catastrophic bushfires of 2020. They have since moved to a property at Mogendoura, in the Eurobodalla.
From next month, Holly and Janelle will run half-day workshops specifically designed for adults who have lived through those fires, thanks to funding from the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal (FRRR) and its Strengthening Rural Communities program.
People interested in taking part in the workshops will have to, for their own safety, meet a number of criteria.
More information, including eligibility requirements, is available on the website.