Horse Power Healing Minds

Melinda Hellenden with young rider Ruby Hazelman on hippotherapy pony, Bella

Adopting two wild Kaimanawa horses in this year’s muster has spurred an equestrian therapist into expanding her practice helping troubled youngsters. ANGELA KEMP reports.

Melinda Heffenden has a dream. The 25-year-old wants to provide equine assisted activities and facilitated learning to children, adolescents and young adults who may be experiencing the early onset of mental illness and psychological distress as well as physical disabilities.

From a farm in Onewhero, Melinda (25) has launched ‘From a Horse with Love’, a not-for-profit group aimed at promoting mental wellness by instilling confidence and social competence through equine assisted therapy.

“We use horses to help children, adolescents and young adults who are going through emotional difficulties or mental illness as well as those with physical challenges.”

The youngsters are referred through the district health board or support charities who provide the client’s funding. At the moment there are between 10-15 regular visitors.

They include children with depression or behaviour issues such as ADHD who learn about paying attention through grooming and riding.

Other youngsters have physical difficulties and include a five-year-old boy who has cystic fibrosis and another with muscular dystrophy.

Melinda said that although riding was an important aspect of the therapy the aim was not to solely teach riding but to use it as a means to meet therapeutic goals.

She learned of the magical healing powers of horses through her own experiences.

“I suffered mental illness when I was younger and horses have been a massive help to me. I only got into horses when I was 18 as we couldn’t have one when I was growing up. I started having riding lessons and was hooked..”

Now, Melinda gives one-to-one sessions during the week and during the school holidays runs special programmes which revolve around learning about social skills and confidence building.

“There is much research in the area of equine assisted therapies globally however, in little old New Zealand it is still relatively new and less formally documented.

“We’re lucky to have an established hippotherapy charitable organisation in ‘Riding for the Disabled’ which provides therapeutic riding for children with physical disabilities.

“But it’s time to harness the healing power of horses and work with those struggling with psychological difficulties.”

Perhaps, surprisingly, to the nonhorsey types among us, Melinda’s five therapy horses come with their own issues being either rescued or damaged.

“I tend to go for horses that have a history, they’re not your typical therapy horses.

Ruby reads to Melinda’s kaimanawas
Ruby reads to Melinda’s kaimanawas

“I feel that the kids who come here with issues tend to connect better with these type of horses and that may very well be the key to success.”

However, Melinda’s biggest challenge so far is to make a therapy horse from Kaimanawas mare, Serene and her foal, Autumn.

“I am simply someone with a dream and pure passion to harness the unique qualities of trust, partnership and acceptance that Kaimanawas naturally exhibit.”

“I want to provide a safe environment where individuals experiencing psychological difficulties can interact with the horses in a way that enables experimental learning. A win-win for both horse and human.”

Someone who can already vouch for the heritage horses is seven-year-old Ruby Hazelman. Within a fortnight of their arrival Ruby had already formed a close attachment to the pair.

“I usually sit with them and watch them which makes them calm. I read and sing to them too which they like.”

At the moment Melinda runs ‘From a Horse with Love’ single-handed but is hoping to enlist volunteers to help out when its charity status is confirmed. She also works part time as a pre-school teacher in Pukekohe.

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Just graduated with a degree in Bachelor of Applied Psychology, which coupled with her horsemanship skills, is a winning combination, Melinda aims to be up and running by September. She has also set up a Givealittle page to raise funds to install an outdoor bathroom and to buy a small portable office. “This is on top of ensuring the ponies remain in tip top condition over winter. A massive thank you to the lovely ladies at Golden Horse Feeds who have generously offered to supply us with chaff to keep their tummies happy.” Whether the Kaimanawas will eventually make it into the programme only time will tell. But I get the feeling that if anyone can do it, Melinda Heffenden is the one.