The Spirit and Soul Equine Assisted Activity Centre, Ashbourne
PUBLISHED: 00:00 19 July 2018
Sarah Stephens of Kirk Langley is using her own experience and her love of horses to help people deal with mental health problems.
When Sarah Stephens was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, she sought solace not in the people around her, but in her animals.
‘While everyone around me was getting upset and emotional, I took my dog for a walk and then decided to go and sit in a barn with my horses,’ says Sarah, 29.
‘I went on to spend many hours with them during my treatment and recovery as well. I’d spend the morning in their barn and they just lay down with me, while my former racehorse, Trevor, had his head over my legs.
‘Just having that quiet time gave me the space to process what was happening to me.’
Sarah was diagnosed with Stage 3 triple negative breast cancer and was treated using eight rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and removal of her ovaries.
Not only did she find being with her horses comforting, she realised over time how they were helping her to stay positive and forward-looking rather than wallowing in her situation and feeling like a victim.
Having grown up around horses, she was aware that they were intelligent creatures, but this was something different, and felt to her as if they were tuning into her emotions and even mirroring her feelings.
‘Not only did my horses give me an opportunity to be still, I also realised that no matter if I didn’t have my hair or my breasts, they treated me as me, not as a cancer patient to be sorry for,’ she said.
‘That was really important to me and a real breakthrough, because I hate being fussed over. It made me realise how atuned horses are to sensing what’s underneath the surface.’
While she recovered – she is now back to full health – Sarah put this realisation into good use.
Sarah has a Master’s degree in psychology and has worked in prisons with offenders on treatment programmes, but decided to change direction by using her horses to help others.
After months of preparation, which included giving her horses specialist training, she finally opened her own equine therapy centre, Spirit and Soul Equine Assisted Activity Centre, a community interest company located in Lodge Lane, Kirk Langley, near Ashbourne, last year.
Equine therapy is a growing area in the UK and sees therapists encouraging people to work with horses in order to explore and discuss their feelings through a series of tailored sessions.
Spirit and Soul is the only full-time equine therapy centre in Derbyshire and Sarah delivers the majority of sessions herself. She works with her seven horses, including Trevor, and is backed by a team of volunteers who help care for the horses and prepare the sessions.
There is no riding involved – everything is done at ground level – and the content of the sessions is backed by a thorough understanding of psychotherapy and psychological theories.
Among the issues that Sarah and her horses can help people with are stress, depression, a lack of self-esteem and low self-confidence, while the centre also offers business training to help professionals develop communication and leadership skills and runs children’s clubs at the weekend.
‘It’s well-known that people benefit from being around animals, but equine therapy takes it one stage further,’ says Sarah.
‘Horses can even sense our heart beats from four feet away, but what makes them so useful for therapy is the way they behave in response to what they’re picking up from us.
‘We then relay that feedback to clients and get them to alter their emotions and change their behaviour before seeing what effect that has.’
The centre has helped over 50 people in the local area since being opened and is hoping to help even more local people this year. It is also running projects with the NHS and is about to embark on a specialist programme for cancer survivors, partnering with Macmillan.
‘Equine therapy works far quicker than we could do through talking therapy and it’s all thanks to the horses,’ says Sarah.
‘They can reveal our emotions and behaviour of which we are unaware, and this is a vital first step to understanding ourselves and working to improve our lives and mental wellbeing.’