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The Thoroughbred and Veteran Welfare Alliance has had a profound impact on the lives of returned service men and women, and an award-winning documentary about the program is spreading the word.
Scott Brodie had long known the healing powers of horses but when he put retired racehorses and returned servicemen together he immediately noticed a magical synchronicity.
“Racehorses have been highly trained for a specific purpose and at the end of the day a lot of the things that they have learnt for that specific purpose are useless in their next life, and that resonated with the soldiers,” Brodie says of the parallels.
The first time when he ran the course there were a few different breeds of horses – a shire, some Andalusians and a couple of thoroughbreds.
“I started telling the group about thoroughbreds, how they live their life and what happens when they are finished racing, how getting them ready for a different life and that adjustment is tricky.
“It was like light bulbs went off above everybody’s heads, it was like ‘that’s us, that is what happens to us’ … right away I said, ‘right, from now on we do this course with thoroughbreds because that makes a lot of sense to the guys’.”
Brodie is sitting in the shade at the Prestige Equestrian in Helensburgh, just north of Wollongong on the tranquil South Coast of New South Wales. It is here, and a property in Kangaroo Valley, that Brodie has facilitated programs, using racehorses, that have helped returned service people recover lives that were at risk of being lost.
“We have seen amazing results, most people who have come through our program will tell you that horses have saved their lives,” he says.
Word of the Horse Aid program, through the Thoroughbred and Veteran Welfare Alliance, has spread. Brodie was interviewed for the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, speaking about the transformation he has witnessed among the veterans – many of them young veterans just returned from duty in Afghanistan.
“The people from the Royal Commission approached me because they had heard how effective it has been,” he says of a free-of-charge program that has helped more than 190 veterans to date, and has been expanded to help first responders.
A documentary called ’The Healing’ – created by Melbourne-based movie-maker Nick Barkla – has further connected people to the project.
The hour-long documentary follows a group of returned service people as they undertake the five-day program with Brodie in the Kangaroo Valley.
The film recently won the Beyond Blue Award for Best Film about Hope and Resilience at the Veterans Film Festival in Sydney and before that was honoured with three awards at the world’s largest and most prestigious horse festival, the Equus International Film festival in Montana.
The documentary, which will be streamed on a major platform in Australia next year, also conveys the challenges around racehorse rehoming, something Brodie has extensive experience in, having played a prominent role within the Racing NSW retraining system before it was developed to its current format.
Brodie is a highly accomplished equestrian who works with high level eventing riders and horses. He says however noble the aim of finding a home for every retired racehorse is, it is a far more challenging undertaking in practice.
“You have to build a strong foundation if the horse is going to be good for anything,” he said. “My concern is that there a lot of people that are taking horses on are not good enough, or do not have the expertise, to do it.
“When I retrain a horse, I will not let it leave me until it is safe, but I feel like horses are being pumped out and ending up with 15 year-old girls that can’t handle them. It’s keeping me in business because they end up coming to me, trying to fix problems.”
Racehorses have found a home in Horse Aid though, where the thoroughbreds’ strongest traits – and even their conditioning – make them perfect for the therapeutic role they play.
“Thoroughbreds are very intelligent and very sensitive, and they are very good at reading human body language, particularly if they have been through the racing industry,” he says.
“Different people are mucking out their box, they are in contact with different people all of the time.
“Horses live off body language, and because racehorses live in close quarters like that with people means they don’t have as much opportunity to learn herd dynamics.
“They learn to read people really well though, that innate ability to have to be able to judge people. You see soldiers walk in and they can be all wooden, with some bravado, and these horses just think straight away ‘that isn’t how people walk … what is going on here?’ … the people have to learn to let go a bit.”
It isn’t always the case that it is horses teaching people to relax though and the documentary highlights how horses can help the former soldiers reclaim a sense of assertiveness.
“Some of the veterans were really passive, and you can’t get anything out of them,” Brodie said.
“Horses need leadership, horses have been followers for 50 million years. In a herd situation there is a stallion and a mare, and everybody else is following. They want to be followers and they are happy to be followers. They need firm, confident leadership.
“With horses, if you are a firm, confident leader, you will get results. Whether it starts on the ground, or on their back, horses are waiting for that leadership and they love it because that is what they have done for 50 million years.
“They crave leadership, and that means they respond to it when honest leadership is given. You can’t lie to a horse, man, you walk in there with them and they know whether you are bullshitting or not, you can’t put on the bravado.
“They know. You have to be honest with yourself first. People will bullshit you all day but horses will just show you what they see; they see right into us.”
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