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The Path of the Horse is a Charity Run by Dean Mighell Helping War Veterans

SARAH HUDSON, The Weekly Times

DEAN Mighell lets out an audible sigh of delight. “This is nice — instant peace,” he says, greeting his 12 horses on his 12ha Trentham property in central Victoria. “It’s a happy herd this morning. What would you choose, Canberra or this?” For 25 years, though, Dean did tread the corridors of parliament houses in Canberra and Spring Street as state secretary of the Electrical Trades Union. He spearheaded campaigns for workers’ rights, took on some major battles such as the docks dispute, and went head-to-head with some key players in industrial relations. “I saw a lot of prime ministers and premiers in that time (1988 to 2013),” says the 55-year-old. “But it was years of conflict and immense pressure, long hours and no time off — when I finished I had 54 weeks of leave owing — and I wanted peace in my life. “I’d lived a full life and I desperately needed to look after my own health and have a change.” In a complete turnaround, in 2016 Dean started a charity, The Path of the Horse, on his Trentham property, while also studying equine psychotherapy, trauma training and is now midway through a four-year part-time degree in Gestalt psychotherapy. ​Most days of the week he works with war veterans and their families — for free — who are suffering such mental health issues as anxiety or post-traumatic stress, combining equine therapy with more conventional psychological treatments. In addition, half the participants come from other walks of life, such as domestic violence, trauma, as well as groups including disadvantaged youth and those with addictions and mental health issues. For Dean, The Path of the Horse has been as much a personal journey of recuperation, as giving back to those who also need help. While he grew up in Melbourne and became an electrical apprentice, it was in his mid-20s that he was introduced to horses on a trail ride in Strathermerton and one month later he had bought his first horse. For many summers — while working with the ETU — he would “pack my swag and Kelpie in the station wagon” and work on weekends at the trail ride company, learning natural horsemanship. “I didn’t see them as a tool to compete on. I was more concerned about connecting with them — if you choose to listen to a horse you will know how they are feeling at that time. It’s a love that has only deepened over the years, especially with my work now.” Describing himself as a “typical bush rider”, it was this dedication to horses that saw him buy the Trentham property in 2002. When Dean left the ETU it was serendipity that he came across a documentary on two war veterans riding horses in the Rocky Mountains, in North America, as equine therapy. Immediately it resonated, especially as for a couple of years in his 20s he was a reservist with an Australian Army Commando unit. “When I was young my dream was to be in the army … It was a big fork in the road for me to choose between commando and the ETU, but I had a passion to look after workers’ rights and that won out. “When I saw that documentary, it was in that moment that I thought, ‘I can do that, I understand veterans and I’ve got a property with horses’.”

DEAN says while many equine therapy organisations rely largely on the horses, he wants to extend that to conventional treatments. “Horses are wonderful in assisting in the process, they are not judgmental, they have a constant state of awareness, they notice what is happening with their feelings and that provides a lovely opening for me to start a discussion. “You can be on a ride in the bush and have a discussion that you would not otherwise have. “Horses can be therapeutic in their own right, but I wanted to help people with a tool kit to manage their mental health better. “The tool kits I use, I wish I had known when I was 26. It’s beautiful to get away from it all when you’re hyper-vigilant, anxious or depressed.” Dean first sits down over a cup of tea with a new participant and then matches each individual to a horse’s personality, adding that only a small fraction of his work is on horseback. The results have been impressive. “I have an eight-year-old boy who has ADHD and autism and when he started he was unable to focus on tasks and had a lot of anxiety, but now he has confidence and communications skills and can’t wait to go for a ride. “One woman, Joan, came to me saying she cried all the time and so I helped her figure out what it was all about, to help her find conclusions. “A veteran with PTSD said being around the horses was the first time since 1993 he’d felt a beautiful sense of being calm and connected.” Wangaratta Vietnam veteran Ray Howard and his wife, Judy, visited The Path of the Horse for the first time in May. Ray says he used to ride horses but after he was injured badly in the war his body now can’t manage to ride. “But it was just beautiful to touch a horse again and I could relax and share things with Dean I wouldn’t with other people, especially as he’s got an armed services background,” says Ray, 72. “He’s got a gift of getting through to people. “My daughter found it and suggested we go. It was important for Judy to be there too because she’s had a tough life with me from the problems I’ve had with the war. “It’s an experience neither of us will ever forget and Dean said we can go back any time.” So far, The Path of the Horse has largely been self-funded by Dean — he even sold his rare Harley-Davidson motorbike to pay for a disabled toilet block to be built on the property. The organisation has a board of directors as well as a dedicated group of volunteers. Dean works closely with Legacy, Soldier On Australia, the Young Veterans Association and Daylesford RSL, and in coming years he hopes to apply for government grants to build accommodation for participants. He adds that it’s part of his code of ethics that he, too, undergoes therapy sessions each month with a practitioner. “You can’t but help be affected by this work. I’m not immune and I never want to be from people’s feelings and experiences. “It’s a privilege in a whole lot of ways to give support to people when they really, really need it. “I’ve had a rich and full life and this is a whole new journey that has emerged and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”


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