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Life After Racing – Have a Heart

With many in our communities in need of mental health support, Racing Hearts is making a valuable contribution, writes JO MCKINNON.

Lisa Coffey has found her calling in life – and that’s working with Thoroughbreds to assist people struggling with psychological issues. Mental health is at an all-time low for many Australians, especially since COVID, and she’s making a positive difference through her charitable organisation Racing Hearts.

Originally from Ireland, Lisa made the move to Australia in 2009 and worked for various stables including Peter Moody, Mick Price, and Ciaron Maher, as well as for Racing Victoria’s equine welfare department.

After suffering a riding injury, she studied counselling and psychotherapy while recovering, ultimately deciding to combine her love of horses with her interest in therapy and to specialise in Equine Assisted Therapy. “I was coming to the end of my time at Racing Victoria and had qualified as a counsellor, and I thought one of the issues that needed addressing was what happens to retired racehorses that were not suited for jumping or pretty enough for the show ring.”

Lisa Coffey with retired racehorse Ablaze

An emerging therapy in America, Lisa was sceptical about replicating Monty Roberts’ approach: “So I went to the Equine Psychotherapy Institute at Daylesford and learned how to bring horses into the therapy space effectively and genuinely.” Founded in 2018, Racing Hearts is an Equine Assisted Therapy practice based in Moorooduc on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. The original practice is located at Graybrook, a 30 acre purpose-built property with multiple paddocks fitted out with horse shelters. The property has a dedicated sand arena for horse training and therapy sessions, as well as a farmhouse. Racing Hearts also has a base at Pakenham, with plans to expand into the NSW’s Hunter Valley and Queensland.

As an Equine Assisted Therapy practice, Racing Hearts is the first of its kind in Australia, not only offering therapy to humans but retraining retired racehorses to act as ‘assistant practitioners’, while at the same time helping them find new homes and a new life after racing. “To date, we have rehabilitated more than 100 retired racehorses. We work alongside Racing Victoria with a focus on their Reset Program, which caters for horses with special needs.”

Currently, Racing Hearts has 12 full-time therapists with a range of qualifications and experience in the mental health sector, from counsellors and mental health nurses to clinical psychologists, and 35 equine staff members of different shapes, sizes, and temperaments. “Thoroughbreds are amazing for this type of work and there are so many people in the community that need help so it’s been a match made in heaven. It’s been incredible and it’s amazing business-wise.”

What started with Lisa, two retired horses and 12 clients has grown to a team of therapists who see 250 people each week. “It’s very sad that there’s such demand for mental health support,” she adds.

Practitioners at Racing Hearts work with people ranging in age from eight to 80. “Clients present with a whole range of challenges,” Lisa says, “some don’t have mental health diagnoses and are suffering from stress or relationship breakdowns, loss of jobs, or grief. All the challenges of life. We also work with people on the spectrum, through to schizophrenia and those with suicidal thoughts.”

Hissing Sid helping a young client to build trust.

Research has shown that when people are in contact with horses their bodies release reward and relaxation hormones. “If the client is more relaxed it’s easier to talk about their issues,” Lisa explains, adding that for a number of reasons, Thoroughbreds are particularly well suited to this important work. “They’ve travelled a lot, been to the races, and been exposed to and seen all sorts of things. They seem to have an ability to connect with us better than other breeds I’ve worked with, and I think it’s because they’ve been handled from birth, have always been around humans, and are very in tune with humans.”

Lisa derives enormous satisfaction from being able to share her horses, and a number of them have been successfully rehomed with clients. “Some people have bought the therapy horse they worked with. I love when we come to the end and the client can live without our assistance, and it’s really nice when they buy the horse that has helped them,” she says. “Sometimes making a decision to keep or sell is hard. I’d love to keep them all. I’ve never seen a horse drive out of our gateway and not cried as they left.”

Since its inception Racing Hearts has had a significant impact on people’s lives and with solid support from the racing industry and partnerships with respected participants including trainers Ciaron Maher and Henry Dwyer, it’s here to stay. A good thing because Lisa loves what she does: “It’s corny to say, but if you enjoy your work then it’s not really work, and the difference horses make to people’s lives is incredible.”

Feature Image: When people are in contact with horses their bodies release reward and relaxation hormones.