The healing power of horses is helping locals across the region thanks to this social enterprise | HerCanberra

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The healing power of horses is helping locals across the region thanks to this social enterprise

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When Sarah* – a 40 year old Queanbeyan woman living with a disability – first came into contact with local social enterprise Catalyst Living Skills eighteen months ago, she struggled to walk more than 20 metres without support before needing to sit down.

That soon changed when Sarah met Buster, a friendly and compact 13-year-old chestnut pony.

“Her joy of being with Buster has been life changing, giving her greater confidence to do more things in the community,” says Ruth Cotton, the organisation’s founder. “Buster quickly became her best friend and gave her the motivation to do more and more with him.”

At first, the pair took things slowly. “We would drive across the paddock and stop next to Buster…who Sarah would brush and touch and then lead into the arena,” Ruth recalls.

She marvels: “Now she [Sarah] can walk almost one kilometre down the hill and into the arena.”

Sarah* (left) playing a game with Buster and a team mate.

Sarah and Buster were participating  in ‘Equine Assisted Learning’ – a method where  horses are used to teach life skills such as: building confidence, empathy, regulating emotions and working with others.

The opportunity for locals to try the program came when Ruth, a riding instructor for more than 20 years, found that she was increasingly working with neurodiverse young people, or clients with learning difficulties and behavioural problems. She noticed how quickly her clients bonded with the horses: their confidence increased and they became more focussed.

In 2021 she set up Catalyst Living Skills as part of a small equestrian centre in Googong, NSW, just outside Canberra.

In the three years since, the social enterprise (a for-purpose organisation using business strategies to solve social, community or environmental problems) has come along in leaps and bounds.

“We have had numerous times when we have been taken aback by someone’s progress. Just like in Sarah’s case, sometimes the change is not just emotional or psychological, but it can be physical,” Ruth says.

Today, Ruth and her team are not just growing their client base, but also their menagerie of animal helpers: “While horses and ponies are central to our programs, we have added other animals such as chickens, guinea fowl, Susie sheep, several sausage dogs and our most recent addition, Caroline caterpillar. She’s being closely observed by many!”

“We have started to work with other agencies and health professions, such as youth justice, speech pathologists, social workers and behavioural support workers and clinical psychologists to further develop our programs,” she continues.

To get her for-purpose business off the ground, Ruth connected with The Mill House Ventures, a Canberra-based organisation that works with passionate social enterprises.

Completing the organisation’s ‘Catalyse’ and ‘GRIST’ programs helped her understand the ins and outs of setting up a small business aiming to make a difference:

“…[The Mill House Ventures challenged my ideas, gave me confidence, and helped me shape the business into a going concern. They have given me contacts, skills and confidence,” she says.

Do you have a great idea for a social enterprise? Applications for the Mill House Ventures flagship program, GRIST, are now open. Find out more here.

Reflecting on Catalyst Living Skills’ achievements, Ruth says with pride:

“We are regularly told by our clients and their families how much of an impact coming to Catalyst is having in their lives.”

She delves into this further, noting: “For most of our clients being outdoors and active is something they rarely experience.

One thing which often strikes us is how isolated many of our clients are. They often live alone, even when they are in a house full of people. A computer or the tv is their main companion.”

“Getting outdoors and being with animals who do not judge, are responsive and honest help teach people to feel more engaged with the world, feel better about themselves and open to new experiences.”

Recently, Ruth was thrilled to learn that the social enterprise had won an ACT Government Social Enterprise Grant.

“The grant is going to help us create a nature play area which…[will be] a large area of bush land for different activities which involve play and activity. It will be designed with the needs of our clients in mind. We hope that it will provide us with an area that we can also offer to other organisations to come to where they can play safely,” Ruth says.

*Name changed to protect her privacy

Feature image: Bernie with Wizz the horse.

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