When horse becomes whisperer

Stacey Doorly-Jones and Majestic Blue, the horse that encouraged her to exchange the boardroom for the stable. (Photograph: Trevor Samson.)

Stacey Doorly-Jones and Majestic Blue, the horse that encouraged her to exchange the boardroom for the stable. (Photograph: Trevor Samson.)

THE window in Stacey Doorly-Jones’s office above the stables on De Grendel farm on the slopes of the Tygerberg Hills outside Cape Town looks directly onto an arena in the yard. A small group of boys in their early teens from the Lindelani Place Of Safety near Stellenbosch are in session with two spirited chestnuts, a docile-looking grey pony, an equine expert and a therapist.

Using pool noodles as barricades, the boys herd the edgy chestnuts together into the centre of the ring. The pony looks on quietly from the sideline. Surrounded by the boys and their noodles, the confined pair submits to capture and eventually stands still. For a while, the horses’ ears twitch nervously but gradually they relax completely and assume the typically horsey “we’ll be here for a while so let’s rest one hind leg at a time” pose.

We can’t hear what’s being said from our vantage point in the office but, with the horses restful in their midst, the boys are engaging enthusiastically with the two women and one another. They’re chatting and nodding, occasionally gesturing to the horses. There’s laughter. They’re animated and communicating.

The youngsters are participants in the Montrose Equine Youth Development Programme. Founded and headed by Doorly-Jones in 2009, the programme is conducted by the Montrose Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the Montrose Clinic Group, which specialises in treating illnesses like alcoholism and eating disorders.

Although equine therapy is increasingly used internationally as a therapeutic approach to treat various mental health and human development needs – including behavioural problems, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression and anxiety – it has never before been used on such a grand scale to treat juveniles with substance abuse and social problems as serious as those faced by children such as those in the ring. Many are awaiting trial. Some have spent most of their lives on the streets. Others have grown up on the knees of hardened gangsters. Several are addicted to drugs, alcohol and/or other substances.

But the use of horses in therapy is not as New Age as you might imagine. Although the large, often unpredictable creatures are finely attuned to the emotions of others and respond to human stimuli because they’re animals of prey, their value in therapy is also due to patients’ inclination to interpret the horses’ behaviour as reflective of their own feelings. The horses become conduits for patients to openly discuss their emotions and fears. For some, the animals provide a means of expression they’ve never experienced.

When people learn to work constructively with horses, say the experts, their confidence in managing themselves is enhanced. Equine assisted psychotherapy is a powerful way of helping people to find their own mechanisms for control and teaches them to manage difficult feelings and situations. In a nutshell, it’s a self-reflective process of experiential therapy during which people complete non-mounted activities involving horses to achieve specific objectives in an unthreatening, untraditional therapy environment.

Doorly-Jones discovered equine therapy after two decades of “boardroom table duty”. As a change management specialist on major transformation initiatives for companies like Vodacom, Old Mutual, Sanlam and Pam Golding, and having just concluded a particularly exhausting major retrenchment project for a large financial services organisation, she began thinking about the pleasure she got from working with her magnificent grey thoroughbred, Majestic Blue.

“I’ve been riding since the age of four,” she says. “I realised after 20 years on the corporate treadmill that I was happiest when I was with Blue. I began thinking about the qualities horses bring out in people and the value of spending time with them. So I decided to research the possibility of developing corporate programmes for companies using horses to apply skills.”

The research led Doorly-Jones to the US-based but internationally active Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). The three-prong EAGALA model involves an equine specialist, a mental health professional and horses, who work together in all sessions with clients or patients. Sessions are conducted in an arena but do not involve any mounted work.

Doorly-Jones contacted EAGALA and was interested to find that the association had had other enquiries from South Africa. A representative visited the country and addressed interested parties. This eventually led to the establishment of the Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Institute of South Africa (EAPISA).

Having trained in equine assisted psychotherapy and obtained EAGALA certification, Doorly-Jones took the leap in 2008. She left her job to establish an equine assisted growth and learning business focussing on corporate development programmes, with a non-profit initiative for the youth on the side.

The operation hadn’t been running for long when she received a call from Johnny Graaff, who is the founder of treatment centres for addictive, compulsive and co-morbid disorders, the Montrose Group. Graaff, whose organisation operates two centres in Cape Town, one in the Karoo and another in London, had come across equine therapy abroad and was keen to add it to the therapies offered in South Africa.

“Discussions with Johnny led to him suggesting that I move my horses and establish Montrose Stables on the family farm – coincidently, De Grendel was originally used to breed Arab horses – so we could offer equine therapy to clients of the Montrose Group. It was a wonderful offer. Not only is it a beautiful setting for the sessions and a perfect home for the horses but he was also happy for me to continue the youth programme.”

In fact, while the stables still offer therapy to private clients from the clinics, the youth programme evolved beyond expectation and the Montrose Foundation was established to administer it. In her new position at Montrose Stables and as a board member of the Western Cape Street Children’s Forum, Doorly-Jones formalised the Montrose Equine Youth Development Programme, which offers six-week programmes to juveniles at eleven places of safety in the Western Cape.

“I’m busier than I ever was in my corporate career,” says Doorly-Jones, who has only recently fully recovered from an open compound fracture of the ankle, which occurred when tumbled from Blue shortly after she’d established Montrose Stables in 2009. “But I could never have done this without my experience in the business world. The establishment and mushrooming of the foundation means that most of my time is spent on organisational and fund raising matters these days.”

She hopes to build on the existing EAGALA model they’re using by including a young man who responded so positively the programme, they’d like to employ him “to bridge some cultural gaps” identified. The foundation is also working on the FindHelp FindHope programme, which provides comprehensive and easy access to information on all addiction centres across the country. There’s a great deal to do on both projects, she concedes, but Doorly-Jones and her team have had such excellent feedback that she’s content to continue in her role outside the arena. That doesn’t however, prevent her from planning on riding the feisty Blue – “feisty, yes, but he’s one of the best therapy horses too, believe it or not” – again for the first time since her accident soon.

Shortly before Doorly-Jones and I leave her office to meet the horses, two of boys from the therapy session stop by to say hello to her. As they’re about to leave after a brief chat and a few hugs, the taller of two pauses and glances at Doorly-Jones, “Stacey, I just want to say that last night I ran away. But then, when I was sitting in the dark wondering where to go, I remembered I would see the horses today. So I came back.”

This article was first published in Business Day in October 2011.

About Administrator

Author and freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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