“This has been a life-changing experience for both traumatized veterans and injured racehorses, creating a powerful emotional connection through the healing process.”
Cott Brodie and Mel Baker are positioned in the center of the indoor training arena at a horse ranch in the southern highlands of New South Wales. Treble Clef, a stunning black gelding and ex-racehorse, gracefully trots around the perimeter, occasionally pausing to perk up its ears and curiously observe Brodie and Baker.
Brodie, a retired horse trainer and chief riding instructor for the NSW mounted police, gently communicates with both the horse and Baker, a former Royal Australian Navy chaplain who was discharged for medical reasons.
“Do not turn around,” Brodie begs her. “He will follow you, I assure you. And if you feel like he is going to change direction and you do not want him to, simply raise the whip and he will stop. Guaranteed.”
Baker smiles and agrees, following Brodie’s suggestion. The eight-year-old Treble Clef obediently follows her and stops when she raises the whip. A peaceful sense of control fills the arena as Brodie works to build a connection between Baker, who has been through trauma during her time in the military, and the gelding, who has suffered injuries from years of racing.
Soon Treble Clef is nuzzling Baker’s shoulder as they pose for the camera. The horse dips its head towards her knee-brace in acknowledgement, she says, of her pain. The swift, acute emotional connection between woman and horse, their sharing of some unspoken human-equine language, is poignant and intriguing.
“When discussing personal issues in therapy, one must revisit the traumatic experiences they have gone through,” the 52-year-old explains. “However, when I am with the horses, I am able to let go of any stress or anxiety and simply let it fade away.”
“I am unable to cling onto that, as it would prevent the horse from communicating with me. In order to establish a true partnership, what I refer to as a ‘dual heartbeat’, I must release all control and allow the horse to guide me.”
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The advantages of uniting veterans with PTSD and injured racehorses may not be immediately obvious to those outside the community. However, Brodie, who struggled after leaving the police force in 2001, has witnessed countless veterans and horses benefit emotionally from this unique bond. Along with Adrian Talbot, a former member of the Royal Marines, Brodie began organizing residential programs in Kangaroo Valley in 2015 for homeless veterans and damaged horses. This effort was an expansion of Talbot’s Homes for Heroes program, which aimed to provide housing for vulnerable and traumatized veterans. It is estimated that nearly 6,000 veterans have experienced homelessness in Australia within the past year. At the time, Brodie was also retraining retired racehorses for Racing NSW. Their organization has since evolved into the registered charity Horse Aid.
Equine therapy, which involves pairing individuals with anxiety, PTSD or depression with emotionally stable horses, is a well-known practice. However, Horse Aid is unique in its approach of connecting retired racehorses in need of retraining with veterans who have experienced trauma.
Brodie, Baker and a number of other veterans and first responders with PTSD are the focus of a deeply affecting, award-winning documentary, aptly titled The Healing, that is screening in Australian cinemas through November and will be available digitally after that. It is a heart-rending depiction of how damaged veterans (most, like Mel Baker, were suicidal upon discharge) are shown a potential path to recovery through connecting to the damaged horses.
The origins of The Healing stem from the director/producer Nick Barkla’s childhood experience with a wounded horse and his family’s military service. Nick’s grandfather, Leonard Hugh (“Bill”) Barkla, was a pilot in the Royal Australian Air Force during the war and crash-landed in the Middle East. His great-uncle, John, also passed away from war-related injuries during his service in the navy. Sadly, Nick’s great-grandfather, Leonard William Barkla, also succumbed to injuries sustained during the first world war in 1920.
During Barkla’s childhood in rural Victoria, his family’s property housed a former racehorse that was facing significant challenges.
“We were instructed to avoid it due to its erratic behavior… I always felt sympathy for the solitary, anxious horse in our lower pasture.”
Barkla stated that his grandfather, affectionately known as “Uppa”, only mentioned his experience in the war once.
The veterans in my film were hesitant to discuss their experiences in war. However, they recognized the importance of sharing their stories in order to help the audience understand their struggles.
I had a strong sense of paying tribute to all veterans through this film, particularly those who were unable or hesitant to share their experiences of trauma. I dedicated the movie to Uppa, his brother, and father, as they made tremendous sacrifices for our nation. At times, I felt as though Uppa was watching over me and motivating me to create something authentic and impactful.
According to Brodie and Baker, who were involved as associate producers, many veterans are hesitant to share their experiences during the residential course. However, they do open up in the documentary.
The story shared by Baker describes her experience of being severely bullied, including receiving life-threatening threats, by a higher-up while serving in the navy. When she spoke up about the mistreatment, her honesty was doubted, causing her even more emotional pain. Later on, she was sexually assaulted by a fellow sailor. This traumatic event led to suicidal thoughts and ultimately, she was discharged from the navy due to medical reasons. As a result, she ended up homeless.
Georgie, a previous member of the navy, shares her experiences of sexual assault and the resulting emotional trauma. Max, a former officer in the Australian federal police, discusses the haunting memories of his service in Timor-Leste, where he had to find a place for a deceased baby in an overcrowded makeshift morgue with faulty refrigeration. Sam, who served in the army, tearfully recounts how his family fell apart due to the stress of his service, leaving him homeless in a creek bed.
Brodie is a charismatic and motivating individual who is well-liked by veterans. It is clear that they are drawn to him when he shares anecdotes and recites passages from AB “Banjo” Paterson’s poignant poem, The Last Parade, during their evening campfire conversations.
According to Brodie, working with injured horses is simpler than dealing with traumatized individuals, but the connection between animal and human is extraordinary.
The speaker refers to former personnel who have experienced trauma as “un-soldiering” in their programs, and to the horses as “un-racing” – a process of mutual deinstitutionalization that benefits both parties.
According to the speaker, horses have a keen awareness of self-doubt in humans. Being herd animals, they naturally look for a leader. When retired from racing, these horses may lack social skills and can be prone to being kicked and bitten if placed in a paddock with more socially adept horses. This is because they are not accustomed to interacting with other horses, having been separated from their mothers and trained for racing from a young age.
“We can help them begin their process of de-racing, similar to de-soldiering, by providing them with strong and confident leadership. This is especially beneficial for veterans who may have also lost their confidence. Effective communication is crucial for our journey towards significant recovery.”
Brodie claims that numerous veterans have testified to the fact that his program has played a role in saving their lives. Both Brodie and Baker have provided testimony to the ongoing royal commission on defense and veteran suicide. Last March, Barkla’s film, The Healing, was shown to the commissioners and support staff. Brodie and Baker also participated in a two-hour Q&A session with them afterwards.
“I provided testimony to the royal commission regarding the program. We have also discussed with the federal department of Defence the advantages of the program, as many veterans have attested to its life-saving impact,” Brodie explains. “However, we have not received any financial support from the government.”
Horse Aid depends on financial support from companies and contributions from the public.
According to Baker, implementing alternative therapy programs like Horse Aid would be beneficial for injured and traumatized military personnel. It would allow them to rehabilitate and continue their service instead of being medically discharged. This approach could also decrease the high number of homeless veterans.
She expresses that if Scott’s program could be officially approved by Defence and made available to veterans who desire it, it would assist in retaining valuable individuals in the military.
“I thoroughly enjoyed my role as a navy chaplain and took great pride in serving my country. Despite facing challenges, I persevered and advocated for my position. I explained to them that if I were to be discharged at that time, I would be left without a home due to the lack of coverage from the DVA.”
However, she was released and as a result “lost her family and all familiarity with her previous life.”
“She saved me,” she points to the training ring and Treble Clef.
She moves her face closer to the horse’s and closes her eyes, sporting a serene smile.
Reworded: Assistance for former soldiers and their loved ones can be accessed at any time through Open Arms, either by calling 1800 011 046 or visiting their website at www.openarms.gov.au. Additionally, Safe Zone Support can be reached at 1800 142 072 or through their website at https://www.openarms.gov.au/safe-zone-support. If in crisis, the organization Lifeline can be contacted at 13 11 14. For those outside of Australia, a list of other helplines can be found at befrienders.org.
The film, The Healing, is currently being shown in certain theaters throughout Australia.