6 February 2018
Equine therapy programs helping Indigenous Americans complete university could be tailored to help Indigenous Australians, says Dr Bindi Bennett.
The University of the Sunshine Coast researcher and social worker gained an Australia Awards – Endeavour Research Fellowship for Indigenous Australians to travel to the United States to learn from leaders in equine-assisted therapy for mental health.
“The University of Denver is having major success retaining Indigenous students after providing the equine orientation program,” said Dr Bennett, from the Gamilaraay (or Kamilaroi) from Northern NSW.
“I want to learn more about that program and if we can bring some of the knowledge back to Australia.”
Dr Bennett will visit the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, and the Four Corners Master of Social Work Program between September 2018 and January 2019.
Dr Bennett has long recognised the gentle affinity between horses and humans, and the therapeutic benefits of this relationship.
“Humans can be more vulnerable with a horse than they can with another human,” she said.
“You can tell a horse things you wouldn’t tell anyone. And very often if we have had traumatic experiences, it has been caused by another human.”
Equine therapy is structured on Gestalt therapy, which uses mindfulness and a focus on personal responsibility to build confidence and mental wellbeing.
“Being with horses, you learn how to be here and now, how to see problems and solutions outside of yourself, as well as emotional regulation, social skills, unconditional love and trust,” Dr Bennett said.
“Being with horses offers significant benefit for patients living with depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders, conduct disorders, dissociative disorders and other chronic mental health issues, and is increasingly used in a variety of social work contexts.”
She says that while Australia offers some equine therapy programs for different groups, and horse programs for Indigenous communities, she has not seen any equine therapy programs specifically for Indigenous communities.
“This fellowship will allow me to find someone who is doing it really well overseas, get a basis for what makes such a program so successful and gather the evidence to show that it is useful,” Dr Bennett said.
“This is not a quick process. We need to be methodical and it will require significant consultation with various Indigenous groups here in Australia to ensure success.”
Eventually, Dr Bennett would like her research to drive a government-funded equine program for Indigenous Australians.
— Janelle Kirkland