Journalism adventures: Therapy with horses at Eden Empathy

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Karen Rademeyer from Eden Empathy called me last year about our blog, Humans of the Garden Route. She told me about what they do at this new initiative. The lengths they go to in order to help as many youths in the Garden Route community as they can. She asked whether we’d be interested in paying them a visit. Immediately, I knew that this had to become a bigger story. So, when our first travel journalists for the year arrived in February, we added it to our travel list.

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What Eden Empathy does

The Eden Empathy Initiative aims to cultivate empathy and coping skills in young people. Especially youths who grew up with trauma, violence and harsh circumstances. According to their website, empathy is “an ability that is easily lost when we shut down emotions that have become too painful to bear.” Animals are better at making connections with people on an emotional level. So, the program entails therapy sessions and activities with dogs, snakes or horses. Through this, they identify and address behavioural and emotional issues in youths. 

During an equine therapy session, the horse reflects the child’s underlying emotions. This is based on a scientific approach. The research was done by the initiative’s practitioner therapist, Dr Christa Boshoff-Du Rand. She monitors both the horse’s and the child’s reaction to each other, the environment and posed questions. 

Our visit to Eden Empathy

One of our students, Rebecca, wanted to write about this initiative as soon as she heard about it. During our Garden Route road trip, we made sure to stop in the town of Knysna in order to visit Eden Empathy. What’s more, they organised an equine therapy demo session for us. In other words, we would be the ones receiving theoretical therapy. No better way to immerse yourself in story research!

Upon arrival, we met Karen and Christa and some more members of the team. They showed us the mini horses first. They usually start their therapy with these when the children aren’t used to horses. One of the tiny female horses took a special liking to our male journalist, Steven! After telling us more about the initiative, we moved on to the bigger horses. In pairs, they gave us a rope bridle and told us we had to “catch a horse.” With no more information than this, we figured out what we were supposed to do. We needed to choose a horse that appealed to us and allowed us to lead it back to the group under the trees. We also had to figure out how to put the rope over their heads. 

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After this, we had to stand close to the horse and watch it closely. Take in the way it breathes, its eyes, its movements. We began to understand the concept of emotional connection with the animal. It was very moving, feeling present and grounded in the company of a large and beautiful creature.

Next, we had a teamwork exercise where one partner had to lead the horse through a maze inside a paddock. The person leading was blindfolded and the other person had to instruct their partner on where to go. Through this, they had to lead their partner (and the horse) safely through the maze. The horses did exactly as the person holding their rope told them, even though they knew the maze. The horses were not giving the participants any help by correcting them! The person leading had to be in control. Every time you or your horse stepped outside of the maze barrier, it was a penalty. Nothing like a good little competition to get children to invest in an activity!

An inspiring experience

Rebecca got more than she asked for when doing research for this story. The Eden Empathy was not only friendly and welcoming, but they also gave us an in-depth intro to their work. We even got to meet Cody the Brave. He’s the pony who survived and returned home after the devastating Knysna fires in 2017. We had an unforgettable experience on the equine therapy demo. We can’t wait to see how many lives are changed through Eden Empathy’s programs!

If you want to join in on Africa Media’s travel and environmental journalism adventures, take a look at our monthly program here.

Rouxne van der Westhuizen profile

Blogger Profile - Rouxne van der Westhuizen

Rouxne has an Honours degree in journalism and media studies. She is the course director for the Travel and Environmental Journalism program and specialises in wildlife conservation writing, travel journalism and blogging.

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