8 March 2015
The horse comes into the ring, name of Brooklyn, her head up, ears back; the ordinary horse signs of being on guard, ready to run. Her flight instincts are finely triggered here because Brooklyn was damaged early on, in a truck accident on the road to market, which left her prone to anxiety in the company of people.
She sees the boy on the other side of the ring, Cooper Daniels. He's got his own problems, frustrations he was born with, a bane that only of late he's come to recognise as an impediment to happiness, to fitting in. Autism with attention deficit disorder: not the makings of a horse whisperer.
Yet here he is, eight years old, slumping his shoulders and breathing deep, affecting the posture of a boy at ease, calling to the horse with his body that all is well. It's not in Cooper's mind that he's here to help himself: he's here for the horse.
Cooper Daniels leads Brooklyn around the ring, coached by trainer Alison Pozzobon. Photo: Paul Jeffers
"It goes both ways," says Colin Emonson, team leader of Horses for Hope, a 12-year-old program based at the Shepparton Equestrian Centre in which lost people and horses help one another regain confidence. "No matter what's going on for Cooper when he arrives here, he has to get in the yard and manage his emotions for the sake of the horse. If he can do it here, he can begin to do it elsewhere."
Over a number of visits, Cooper has progressed from learning how to calmly approach a horse to today's exercise, in which he leads Brooklyn through an obstacle course – firstly with a lead, and then without. While he's supervised for safety's sake by practitioner Alison Pozzobon, it's Cooper who communicates with the horse throughout.
On the first pass, Brooklyn clipped a log, and Cooper's initial response was anxiety, and there was a brief moment when horse and boy were out of sorts. But the boy quickly settled himself, and the horse did too. Toward the end, Cooper, by presenting an open chest and erect posture – but no hint of aggression – manages to direct Brooklyn to walk backwards. By this stage, the horse's head is down and the ears are forward: signs of trust and respect.
Cooper Daniels, 8, in the ring with horse Brooklyn and trainer Alison Pozzobon, as his mother Zoe looks on. Photo: Paul Jeffers
Cooper's mother Zoe says: "I believe he's starting to understand his emotions and beginning to change."
This is no miracle cure. Cooper attends a special needs school three days a week and a mainstream school for two, with the help of a teacher's aid. Still, he struggles. The only therapy Zoe Daniels has found to get consistent results, at least in the moment, is when Cooper works with horses – a different one each time he visits.
"I'd bring him here every week if I could," she says "I'm hoping they'll have us for a long time. It helps me be a better parent."
Horses For Hope program manager Colin Emonson. Photo: Paul Jeffers
For Brooklyn the horse, recovery is slow but steady. She's been at the Shepparton facility for two years. Eventually, she'll be placed in a living home.
"She'll stay here for as long as she needs to," says Colin Emonson. "It's about the horse meeting enough people who have convinced them that being around people is a good experience. Once they get to that point, they go home."
The Horses for Hope program, run by Kildonan Uniting Care, calls its therapy Equine Assisted Narrative Practice. It's one variation of horse-based psychotherapies that have sprung up in Australia over the past 20 years or so – and are apparently supported by a growing body of academic research.
In 2009, following the Black Saturday fires, Horses for Hope was approached to establish a second centre, at devastated Kinglake. Says Colin Emonson: "We had fire-affected horses working with ... a couple of hundred fire-affected people. Lately, we've been seeing people with other problems."