For the Love of Horses

Fay McCormack

Fay McCormack specialises in the field of addiction and has worked in an out-patient youth service while in the USA, and in residential and community-based drug and alcohol services in Australia. Her love of horses resulted in becoming a dual Eagala certified practitioner and establishing the first Equine-Assisted Therapy program within a Community Health Service in Australia. The program provides sessions for children, adolescents, women, men and groups experiencing a wide range of mental and psychosocial issues.

I have loved horses since I was a child. My father had a small property, and I was given a horse at age 10 to periodically muster the cattle. Monty was a chestnut Galloway with a blaze. He became a best friend, teacher and confidant. We went to Pony Club and Gymkhanas, competed in local shows and spent weekends exploring the countryside.

In terms of my education and early career path, I completed year 10, as was expected in my day, and worked in clerical jobs. Tw'enty years later, I decided to go to University after becoming a single mother of three children, much to my family’s surprise. I completed a bachelor of arts with distinction achieving majors in psychology, welfare studies, sociology and geography at the University of Central Queensland. I worked in a variety of positions in Rockhampton and Moranbah before choosing to specialise in the field of addiction. In 2001, I became the first Australian to complete a master of arts in addiction counselling at the Hazelden Graduate School of Addiction Studies, Center City, Minnesota. I then worked in an out-patient youth treatment center in Stillwater, Minnesota. Since my return to Australia, I have worked in residential and community-based drug and alcohol services in Victoria.

While not having contact with horses since age 20, my love for them never dampened. After investigating two other models of Equine-Assisted Therapy and Equine-Assisted Learning, I chose the Eagala Model. Eagala necessitates “unlearning” many of one’s professional skills as a mental health practitioner or as an equine specialist. The Eagala Model has a team approach, ground-based activities, is solution-oriented and sets global ethical standards promoting the physical and emotional safety of the horses and the clients (Eagala, 2015). I completed my Eagala training in Sydney in late 2011, and HAY (Horses Assisting You) began in early 2012. HAY is the only Equine-Assisted Therapy program within a Community Health Service in Australia.

Now in our ninth year, we have worked with a wide range of clients with various psychological, behavioural and environmental challenges including clients with drug and alcohol issues, women and children who have escaped family violence, children and adolescents in out-of-home care, adults and children who experienced the Black Saturday bushfires, individuals with mental health issues, and children on the autism spectrum. We also provide team building, leadership and personal development sessions.

A typical day at HAY starts at 8:30am and finishes at 5pm. Emails and messages are checked, and paperwork and supplies for the day are gathered before driving up to 45 minutes to a site for the days sessions. Case notes are completed after each session, emails and messages are checked again, and phone calls (and lunch) are scheduled between sessions. My co-facilitator and I debrief after each session and prepare for our next session.

I have been extremely fortunate to have three certified Eagala practitioners with their own horses and properties within easy driving distance who have contracted to work for HAY. As a team, we have developed open and honest relationships based on mutual respect. These relational elements are essential as we check in with each other before sessions, work collaboratively during sessions and plan our clients’ next session. The benefits of being in a team include: not having to have mental health qualifications and be an equine specialist; not having to have all the ideas and answers for every client or group; reduced isolation; and keeping everyone’s ego in check. The team approach adds to the emotional and physical safety of the client and the horses.

In order to become competent in your chosen profession, you will need to deepen your theoretical knowledge and practice your skills for some years before venturing into Equine-Assisted Therapy. By doing this, the best interest of your client remains at the forefront. As with any profession, you always need to work within your scope of practice (Australian Counselling Association, 2016). Additional strengths and attributes needed to succeed include good time management and organisational abilities, and excellent communication skills.

During your time of exploration, find out who is practising Equine-assisted sessions in your area, attend their open days or ask to experience a session. Learn as much as you can about the animal-assisted therapy industry. Watch YouTube videos and explore relevant websites. Choose a model of Equine-Assisted Therapy that suits your values, your personality and the way you would like to work with horses.

Whichever model you choose, become involved with like-minded practitioners, attend networking meetings and volunteer as a way of broadening

For the Love of Horses 161 your knowledge. Be willing to continue to learn and to challenge yourself! I wish you all the best in your journey of discovery.

References

Australian Counselling Association. (2016). Scopeof practice for registered counsellors. Newmarket, Queensland, https://www.theaca.net.au/documents/ACA%20Scope%20of%20 Practice%20for%20Registered%20Counsellors%202016.pdf

Eagala. (2015). Fundamentals of the EAGALA model (8th ed.). California, CA: Eagala.

 
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