Animal therapy idea pays off

Bred to be a child’s show pony, Jack Sparrow did not take kindly to the intensity of his role and started rebelling against his rigid schedule of training by throwing riders off.

Now ensconced in the peaceful tranquillity of iThemba Ranch where he was urged to “just be a horse”, the grey pony is calm and stoic and imparts kindness to children who need to hug him.

Operetta the stocky white pony with liquid eyes was attacked by a pack of dogs on the day she was born. They ripped at her throat and legs, leaving her unable to nurse from her mother and battling with septicaemia. Thanks to her loving human family and now enjoying the peace at the Wilsonia, East London, ranch, today Retta, as she is lovingly known, is tender and calm and an integral part of the iThemba’s therapy programme

“Since he came here, Jack Sparrow has completely changed and so we tell the children who come here for therapy sessions that God gives everyone different talents,” co-founder Gayle Flanegan says.

“Jack Sparrow didn’t flourish in school, but God made him to help children and we tell them they can also flourish in their own ways.”

Retta has helped a boy with extreme self-esteem by “choosing” him.

“She kept nuzzling him and he could not believe she chose him because of his self-esteem issues, but after a year that boy performed a piano recital at his school prizegiving which he never would have done before. The change in him was because Retta chose him,” Flanegan says.

Jack Sparrow and Retta are two of nine horses, each with their own sad background, each of who imparts their own qualities of acceptance and love to children who come to the ranch for weekly sessions with them.

Flanegan, 41 and her sisters Jami Haynes, 25, and Vanessa Cotterell, 39, started the non-profit organisation on their businessman father Tony Cotterell’s Teddy Farm three years ago after it dawned on them that they all had the same dream – to use horses that had been rehabilitated to help children who have faced their own demons in their short lives.

“My mom Glynnis Batterson sat us down and asked us if we had realised we all had the same dream – to work with horses and children,” Flanegan said.

The sisters-based iThemba on the American Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch in Oregon where they have attended clinics and courses. Although they do not have psychology training, the sisters believe God guides them and their animals to impact the young lives they touch.

While some children come from backgrounds of abuse, mistreatment or abandonment, others have learning problems or are struggling at home due to a distressing divorce.

“Things may be upside down at home and children may not be coping and they can come here and spend time with a horse and just breathe.”

She said horses, some of whom were race horses who struggled to adapt after they were retired, had an uncanny knack of “picking” a child going through issues the animals seems to empathise with.

“If a child has been abandoned, a horse that has also been abandoned often picks them. I believe God matches a horse with a child. Also, horses are extremely emotional animals and understand more than we give them credit for.

“An eight-year-old girl who had been sexually abused said she felt loved and accepted when she came here,” Flanegan said.

For children who are nervous of horses, the ranch has stand-in therapy animals in the form of three small dogs, who follow the sisters everywhere.

“A lot of children who come here, have never seen a horse so a 300kg horse can be intimidating and you can’t do therapy when you’re intimidated, so we have a cocker spaniel called Summer, a deaf miniature toy pom called Simba and Pirate the Jack Russell, who step in as therapy dogs. The dogs seem to just know what to do. If a child is timid, for example, Pirate will be quiet with her, and if another is high energy, she will also be hyper,” Flanegan says..

Youngest sister Haynes can personally attest to the therapeutic power of horses. As a little girl she watched her beloved thoroughbred Don Quixote being born at Teddy Farm and the bond between horse and child was instant. “He was like a father figure. He was the best psychologist I ever had. If I felt sad I would just smell him. The children who come here also sniff him – he has the smell of security.

“Of all animals, horses are most in tune with human feelings so they teach children to be happy and calm,” she says.

Weekly sessions are held with children from Greensleeves Place of Safety. Each child works with one horse and one volunteer and sessions include chores such as cleaning troughs and saddles, activities that get the children interacting closely with the horses and a group or one-on-one sessions.

“Once we painted the horses with non-toxic water paint and one girl painted hers as a superhero. That says it all.”

l On September 16 at 6pm iThemba Ranch is holding a fund-raising Western-style Hoe Down at Buffs Club which will include line-dancing, a mechanical bull, an auction and a hearty cowboy meal. Tickets cost R150 and can be purchased by calling Jami on 078 120 2884. — barbarah@dispatch.co.za

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