Equine therapy centre in the running for major financial award

An equine therapy centre that helps cancer patients and women with complex needs is among the organisations competing for votes in the National Lottery’s Peoples’ Choice Awards.

The Spirit and Soul Equine Assisted Activity Centre, which has bases in Derbyshire and east Yorkshire, was formed after founder Sarah Stevens was diagnosed with breast cancer two and a half years ago.

Sarah has a background in psychology and had been working in prisons, probation and community services when her life changed course.

“When I was diagnosed with cancer, that essentially made me change everything — as it does,” said Sarah, who has been involved with horses since she was six.

“I started noticing the impact it was having my own horses and then I started working on methods of how horses could help people. The non-judgmental, label-free environment they create encourages people to work on themselves.”

Sarah had a year off while she underwent treatment for cancer, including chemotherapy, and said that when she returned to work, the job “didn’t feel like me any more.”

“Changing path was completely unexpected, it was a curve ball,” she said. “I’ve since spent two years putting together this programme, and it’s working.”

The not-for-profit now regularly works with cancer charity Macmillan but has a broad remit, also taking on private clients, working with NHS occupational therapy teams, back-to-work initiatives and local organisations including those working with women with complex needs.

Sarah said that people often ask if the course — which usually runs for six or 10 weeks — was “pony patting” but she explains that horses have a far greater role to play in recovery.

“It is more theraputic and about learning life skills,” she said. “We structure activities, learn problem-solving and team working. The horse is there to tell us how regular our emotions are and help people to learn about themselves.”

“There are three facets to how they can help,” she added. “One is the non-judgement — as much as people say they don’t judge others, they do, and people don’t feel that judgement around horses.

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“Another is how they react instantly, in the moment, so you have to respond there and then. The other facet is that you’re getting outside in nature, which is often better for people than sitting in a room and reeling off information about your life to a therapist.”

Sarah said the centre also offers the opportunity to find roles for horses that have problems, and that many of the animals there had been unsuitable for ridden careers.

She added that the issues the horses had faced often resonate with her clients.

“All our horses have a back story and often it works better when people can empathise with the horse,” she said. “We have a lovely part-bred Arab mare who was passed from pillar to post as there was obviously something wrong with her back. She had gone through 15 different homes before she came here, she did some work with a girl in foster care who had lots of different homes and they just instantly connected and bonded.”

The winner of the Peoples’ Choice award in each region can secure up to £50,000 in funding, and votes can be cast online. The website also features a video about the Spirit and Soul centre.

“We’d love to use the money to cater for people who want to work with us but can’t,” said Sarah. “We’d like to provide more transport options — as that is often one of the biggest barriers — and also look at more mobile provision, such as round pens, so we can take the horses to people.”

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