AgriCareers: Healing hearts with the help of horses

Through equine assisted psychotherapy, Dr Gail Venecourt helps people with mental health issues work through their problems. It's another little-known career to pursue when farm life is calling

Horses communicate non-verbally, says Dr Gail Venecourt, a horse specialist at Earth Soul Connection, who makes a living from the connection between the beautiful animals and human beings. Photo: Lucia Macedo/Unsplash

Onderstepoort Biological Products says it is aware of concerns about a vaccine shortage, and contingency plans are in place. Photo: Lucia Macedo/Unsplash

Did you know that horses can feel your emotions and interact with them? Drs Gail Venecourt and Karien Botha started Earth Soul Connection, where they work with assistance of their horses to help their patients through addiction and mental health struggles.

For the last twenty years, Gail Venecourt has been working with horses. With a doctorate in agriculture, Venecourt had been working at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) when she decided she wanted to pursue her true passion.

“I decided what I actually want, is to ride horses and work with horses. So, my husband and I bought property here in Joostenbergvlakte and I have my own small stable yard and I compete with horses.”

About 20 years ago, Dr Gail Venecourt decided to leave the Agricultural Research Council to work with horses. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Venecourt teaches dressage, which is a discipline of horse riding, and is the latest professional to be featured on Food For Mzansi’s AgriCareers learner platform. She says the way people interact with their horse, reveals a lot about their psychology.

It was through teaching dressage that she ended up as a horse specialist in an equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) practice. “[Dressage] was how I met Dr Karien Botha. She’s a psychiatrist in Paarl and I actually started out giving her lessons in dressage. Because we got talking, she helped me get qualified with EPISA (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Institute of South Africa). Since I’ve been qualified [through EPISA], we worked together.”

Make a connection

Earth Soul Connection, the practice Venecourt and Botha started three years ago, works mostly with the Life Park Health group. They aid people with addiction rehabilitation and help teenagers with depression and anxiety. Venecourt says that, in order to set up an EAP practice, both psychiatrist and horse specialist need to be certified through EPISA.

“We both have to have an understanding of how the issue of mental health and the horse behaviour fit together because whatever you’re doing with equine assisted psychotherapy, you’re working with horses.

“But when you do the EAP, the people often have never ever touched a horse in their life before. So, you need to be very aware of what is going on all the time, not only to observe the horse’s behaviour, but also to observe the person so that you can keep it safe. As two people with four eyes, you have a much better possibility of observing everything all the time,” she explains.

Dr Gail Venecourt says horses mirror human emotion. Photo: Raphael Wicker/Unsplash

Venecourt finds that one of the biggest challenges to EAP is the cost of the service. She explains that medical aids usually cover the cost of the mental health professional, but the horse specialist is usually an additional charge not included under the insurance coverage.

“For many people, this becomes just too expensive. Or they see it as too expensive, especially if they don’t understand the benefits of EAP in terms of really helping them. That is one thing that we find quite a problem, and obviously [we] need to take in the cost of keeping the horses. So again, it becomes a circular thing.”

At the moment, Venecourt more or less does EAP once every two weeks. Since the frequency of the service is not high, Venecourt still teaches dressage. She adds that when you own horses, simply doing one type of activity with them is not sufficient to cover the cost. “In general, for anyone really wanting to do the EAP, you need to combine it with something else. But this goes for just about anything you do with horses. They’re expensive, so you have to do… a few different things with them to make it all financially viable.”

Drs Karien Botha and Gail Venecourt work hand in hand at Earth Soul Connection. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Staying inspired

One of the things about EAP that keeps Venecourt inspired, is how immediate the results of EAP can be. She finds horses to be emotionally responsive and they often mirror the emotions of the humans interacting with them.

“[Horses] are like human beings. They are social creatures. They cannot function on their own. Everything about them is all about being social and having relationships with other horses.

“And this is where their emotions come in, because they convey their emotional state to other horses all the time through their behaviour. They [also] convey that message to human beings if we know how to read the behaviours; the body language that they’re communicating.”

Venecourt explains that the behaviour of a horse can act as a direct link to what a human being is going through, because of how the horse mirrors their emotions. She says that horses are silent communicators, as they are prey animals.

“This whole emotional status that the horse has, [how the horse] communicates all the time to the outside world through their body language, through the way they behave, it’s my job in the EAP to read that language of the horse”. 

The immediacy comes in when she interprets the horse’s behaviour and can tell the patient exactly what she thinks they are feeling or thinking at that moment. “The person is being immediately confronted with either their emotional state or a behaviour.”

Making a breakthrough

She says that people are often shocked at the accuracy of her descriptions. Even when they are sceptical at first, they tend to come around about their own emotions and behaviours afterwards.

“The first time, they might not believe it. The second time, they are like, ‘Wow, really?’ And if it happens the third time, they are like, ‘OK, I get this’. They may not have been aware of what they’re doing, so [EAP] is a really good mirror to hold up to a person and say, ‘This is what’s happening now. What about if you change your behaviour; do it differently?’.

She says that in 95% of her cases, the patient can walk away not only understanding their own behaviour, but also having a way to adapt. “It’s like a lightbulb moment and that’s what I find so inspiring.”

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