Thoroughbreds are all Heart as charity changes lives through equine assisted therapy
Lisa Coffey has found her calling in life and that’s in working with retired thoroughbreds to assist people of all ages who are struggling with psychological issues.
Mental health is at an all-time low for many Australians, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic and recent economic downturn but she’s working hard to make a positive difference to people’s lives through her charity-based organisation Racing Hearts.
Originally from Ireland, Lisa made the move to Australia in 2009 and worked for various stables including Peter Moody, Mick Price, and Ciaron Maher as well as in the equine welfare department of Racing Victoria.
It was after suffering a riding injury that she discovered her love of counselling. While recovering, she studied counselling and psychotherapy and ultimately decided to combine her love of horses with her interest in therapy, specialising in Equine Assisted Therapy.
“I was coming to the end of my time at Racing Victoria and had qualified as a counsellor and I thought one of the issues was what happens to retired racehorses that were not suited for jumping or pretty enough for the show ring,” Coffey says. “It was an emerging therapy in America, and I was sceptical about replicating what Monty Roberts does and selling it as therapy, so I went to the equine psychotherapy institute at Daylesford and learned how to bring horses into the therapy space effectively and genuinely.”
Founded in 2018, Racing Hearts is an equine assisted therapy practice based in Moorooduc on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.
The original practice is based at Graybrook, a 30-acre purpose-built property with multiple paddocks containing horse shelters. The property also has a dedicated sand arena for horse training and for equine assisted therapy sessions, while it also incorporates a farmhouse. Racing Hearts now also has a base at Pakenham.
As an equine assisted therapy practice, Racing Hearts is the first of its kind in Australia, not only offering equine assisted therapy to humans but also rehabilitating retired racehorses to act as “assistant practitioners” as well as helping them find new homes and new life after racing.
“To date, we have worked with Racing Victoria to rehabilitate more than 100 retired racehorses, with a large focus on their RESET Program which caters to horses with special needs.”
Currently, Racing Hearts has 12 full-time therapists who possess a large range of qualifications and experience in the mental health sector, ranging from counsellors and mental health nurses to clinical psychologists.
There are 35 equine ‘staff members’ of different shapes, sizes, and temperaments to suit any client’s need or experience. Twelve of those are retired racehorses who all play a crucial role.
“Thoroughbreds are amazing for this type of work and there are so many people in the community that need this sort of help, so it’s been a match made in heaven. It’s been incredible. It’s amazing, business-wise, I’m so busy,” Coffey says.
“It started with me and two retired horses and 12 clients. Now I have a whole team of therapists and see 250 people each week. It’s very sad there’s so much demand for mental health support in our community.”
Practitioners at Racing Hearts work with people ranging in age from eight to 80.
“Everyone presents with a whole range of challenges. Some don’t have mental health diagnoses and are suffering from stress or relationship breakdowns, loss of jobs, or grief. All the challenges of life. We also work with people on the spectrum through to schizophrenia and suicidal thoughts. Research has shown, in a biological way, when people are in contact with horses our bodies naturally release a lot of reward and relaxation hormones. If the client is more relaxed, it’s easier to talk about what their issues are.”
Coffey says, for a number of reasons, thoroughbreds are particularly well suited to this important work.
“They have seen so much in their lives. Before they go down these pathways, they have travelled a lot and been to the races and been exposed to and have seen all sorts of things,” she says.
“They seem to have an ability to connect with humans better than other breeds I have worked with, and I think it’s because they have been handled consistently since they were born and have always been around humans and are very in tune with humans.”
During the past few months, Racing Hearts great work has extended into NSW for the first time, working with the school’s program there.
“We had five schools involved and it was amazing. We invited them to select the kids and wanted them to bring their most vulnerable kids. Those on the verge of being expelled or really difficult to manage and kids from extreme trauma backgrounds suffering depression, anxiety, ADHD, anger issues and with domestic violence backgrounds,” Coffey says.
“The themes were around awareness and consciousness and living in the present, boundaries, healthy relationships, life challenges and how to regulate their emotions with breathing exercises, sourcing in nature and with horses and, through that, how they can be brought back to a calm state.”
The programs were held at the Upper Hunter Riding for the Disabled facility at Muswellbrook and since they recently concluded have received some amazing feedback.
One participant wrote in an email to Coffey: “Our son has always had trouble with managing his emotions. Instead of shouting and taking off on his dirt bike and returning angry, he now goes to the paddock and stands with our horse. He returns calm and ready to communicate. As the school counsellor, I will be recommending equine therapy to all who are in the school. The benefits have been groundbreaking.”
Coffey is hoping to continue these programs into the future but says funding cuts to mental health programs in schools, particularly in Victoria, mean it will be difficult to continue unless they can attract funding support from elsewhere.
Funding, like it is for many doing wonderful work in the thoroughbred welfare space, is a real challenge, and, she says, there is little support from industry bodies that nowadays deduct a percentage of winning prize-money from the owners’ purse for “welfare”.
“We are constantly hustling for funding. We get little or no funding from racing bodies. It costs me $25 per day to feed each horse and especially when you add up staff, insurance and rent etc. It’s always a constant battle to keep money in the account,” she says.
Despite the slog, Coffey says will keep going in the hope that some major partners eventually come on board for the long haul. Let’s hope they do, and quick smart.