The Local - by Eve Lamb (March 29th 2023)
Photography by Eve Lamb
TURNS out simply hanging with horses is really good for your health and happiness.
It’s a basic tenet that underscores the good things happening at The Path of the Horse, just out of Trentham.
Here on his beautiful 11-hectare property embraced by the Wombat State Forest, qualified psychotherapist and experienced horseman Dean Mighell and his horses are helping make life better for all sorts.
Kids with ADHD, teens with autism, NDIS clients and traumatised emergency service professionals and returned military service veterans with PTSD are among those whose health and wellbeing is benefitting from what happens here.
Dean started The Path of the Horse as a registered charity back in 2016 and now has 10 horses – think characters with big equine personalities. With a background in the army and the trade union movement, and personal experience of post-traumatic stress disorder, Dean was inspired to start his unique equine-assisted service after watching a documentary about two American ex-military veterans who took a life-changing horse trek in Colorado.
At 50 and looking for a new direction in life, Dean was so inspired by what he saw that he realised he could use his own many years spent around horses – and his bushland property – to do something pretty special. He also signed on to study with the Equine Psychotherapy Institute to become an equine-assisted learning practitioner, and then after four years with Gestalt Therapy Australia, he emerged as a fully qualified psychotherapist.
Joining forces with his equine friends, some of whom are rescue horses and have themselves survived traumatic pasts, Dean has not looked back.
When The Local headed out to the forest to pay The Path of the Horse a visitrecently, Dean explained that the time clients spent hanging with the horses mostly (95 per cent of the time) did not involve riding them – “except where fear is an issue and it may help with this”.
Instead, time spent at The Path of the Horse is far more likely to involve just being with and near these dignified, cheeky, charismatic creatures.
This might involve leading a couple of horses through the forest, and just chatting together with a client, Dean says. Or it may involve grooming a horse. Or kicking back and shooting the breeze in the excellent company of a horse. Photos capture clients and horses reclining –literally flat out – just soaking up the sunshine and each other’s presence.“It’s very client-led in terms of how they interact, and it’s a lot of fun as well, ”Dean says. “We call it invisible therapy.”
Confidence-growing, trust-building, and social skill enhancing are all typicalbenefits Dean mentions. Learning how to “self regulate” is something to which he repeatedly refers duringthe course of our conversation.“The horses are just beautiful at self regulation. They love affection and they giveit back. When we’re out there with the horses, our minds are in the here and now.“It’s very grounding for people who are anxious.
Our horses are treated with respect and they are so calm that people will sometimes say ‘do you drug them?’ And we say ‘no, we love them’. We get people of all ages, but our youngest regular is a three-year-old boy with autism.”A gentle giant of a horse named George has formed a special bond with this little autistic boy, Dean says, noting that the formation of special connections between particular horses and clients are quite common. “The change in this little boy is amazing. He’s gone from non-verbal to verbal.He’s learned how to self regulate,” Dean says.
Among those who love what’s happening at The Path of the Horse so much that they regularly volunteer here is Kyneton local Eva Parkin, inset. With a background in local government economic development, Eva is now completing an equine-assisted learning course and ultimately hopes to become a qualified psychotherapist as well. “Being with horses is for me very therapeutic in and of itself,” she says. “It’s very rewarding work helping others with life challenges.”Like Dean, she too has personal experience with some of the issues clients maybe dealing with. “I have experienced severe anxiety in my past,” says Eva who was also drawn to The Path of the Horse because she grew up with horses and loves just being around them.
While this uniquely therapeutic enterprise does receive some payment for the NDIS work it gets, it survives on donations and support including some it gratefully receives from returned service organisations like the RSL, Melbourne Legacy and Young Veterans.
“We’ve seen hundreds of veterans and we’ve assisted people from all walks of life, but the Department of Veterans Affairs can’t fund us,” Dean says. He says that right about now some more support from individuals or sponsorship from businesses would make a huge difference.