Taking therapy off the couch and into the paddock

I am watching 15-year-old Seamus* step into a small arena and come face to face with a powerful chestnut stallion named Sunny, who is at least 12 times his body weight. Without rope, bridle, saddle or whip, the boy and horse eye each other up on the dirt.

Seamus, who is being bullied at school and admits to being a little frightened of horses, slowly raises one hand instructing Sunny to back away. For a few agonising minutes, the horse just stares at the timid, wiry teenager, who relaxes his breathing and maintains his calm. Then, with a quick toss of his head, Sunny takes four steps backwards. The boy is beaming.

Sue Spence: “I had no idea how to drop into a calm, still place inside myself. Nobody had ever taught me that. It took a natural horseman to bring me out of my anxiety.”Credit:Getty Images

Sue Spence, horse whisperer, life coach and author of Horses Who Heal, sees this sort of transformation all the time. Her life-skills program, Horses Helping Humans, and registered charity, the Horse Whispering Youth Program, are taking psychotherapy off the couch and into the paddock.

"Horses are extremely sensitive to energy," says Spence. "They know us better than we know ourselves. Working with them provides invaluable insights into what's really going on inside us and shows us how we are presenting ourselves to the world."

"If you approach a horse with your body tight and your adrenalin up, it will quickly move away from you. If you're angry or frustrated, it will want to get away from that energy, too. You need to change your energy and use your body language to gain the horse's trust and respect."

Based in Tallebudgera Valley on the Gold Coast, Spence uses horse-whispering skills to help thousands of clients – from juvenile offenders and victims of domestic violence to supermodels and CEOs – develop effective communication skills, regain confidence and recover from trauma.

"It's a really powerful thing to see someone who has suffered trauma or abuse begin to project their assertiveness," says Spence. "Often for the first time, they experience what it feels like to set boundaries.

Since childhood, Spence has had a special affinity with horses. However, it wasn't until she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005 and needed to undergo a double mastectomy and reconstruction that she realised just how healing the connection would become.

"I'd been living at blistering speed," says Spence. "I was show-jumping and running fitness centres and it was all go, go go! After my cancer, I suffered acute anxiety and realised I needed to make some changes."

She moved to a secluded spot in the Gold Coast hinterland and began training in natural horsemanship with horse whisperer Ken Faulkner.

"Ken is a great friend and mentor," says Spence. "I had no idea how to drop into a calm, still place inside myself. Nobody had ever taught me that. It took a natural horseman to bring me out of my anxiety."

pence's four horses – Sunny, Mindi, Larry and Yogi – each have very different temperaments that correlate to four common personality types: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic. When people and ponies are paired up, they work best with their opposite personality type.

"If I matched a nervous person with a nervous horse, then they wouldn't learn too much," she says. "But if I put opposites together, one of them must change. Clients learn that it's not what you say to the horse that matters, it's what you project. You need to establish your own boundaries and have your own emotions under control before they will respond to you."

Oh, and never show a horse affection until you have its respect, Spence advises. "Same when closing a business deal or negotiating a pay rise."

*Name has been changed.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale September 15.

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