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27 Sept 2022

Clinical psychologist whose horse-therapy charity is ‘life-changing’ for vulnerable kids now faces urgent funding battle to stay open

Clinical psychologist whose horse-therapy charity is ‘life-changing’ for vulnerable kids now faces urgent funding battle to stay open

A passionate clinical psychologist who helped create a unique charity offering therapy with horses for vulnerable children and young adults says they will be forced to shut their doors if they cannot urgently raise money to fund their new stables.

Starting in 2009 as a small but dedicated group of psychotherapists and horse specialists touring schools, Dr Jemma Hockley, 46, has watched her charity, Strength And Learning Through Horses (SLTH), grow to support 500 London families a year through their remarkable equine therapy and education.

But with the lease at their current stables in Edgeware, London, due to end in January, Jemma and her co-founder, Rosie Bensley, 36, are up against the clock to raise £150,000 for their new site to help build the facilities they need to keep serving the community.

Jemma, who lives in Barnet, north London, with her husband, Miles Lester, and their two children, aged 12 and 14 – who she does not wish to name – said: “The difference we make is absolutely life-changing.”

She added: “Some of the young people we work with say this is the only reason they get out of bed in the morning, or the only reason they come to school.

“If we can’t build these stables, our 10 horses will have nowhere to go and we will have to close our doors to those young people.”

Stressing the importance of the stables to the children, she added: “For so many of them, this is the only place they can come where they feel safe enough to be in a group, or the only place to talk with an adult and engage in therapy – we cannot afford to lose that.”

Growing up Barnet, London, Jemma’s passion for horses began when she learnt to ride at her local stables, aged eight.

She said: “I started training with the horses weekly with our family friend and from a young age, I had this sense of being completely out of control with the horses and understanding that I had to master that,” she said.

“I understood quite quickly that when you’re with a horse, you’re never really 100 per cent in control, so you always have to be very present with yourself and in your body.

“These 700 kilogram animals are so gorgeous and majestic and incredibly powerful – and the fact you can have this connection and get these amazing animals to listen to you, even though it’s completely against their natural instincts, is an empowering experience.”

From then on, horses became a fierce passion for Jemma and a place to turn for comfort and support in her own life.

And when, aged 19, she started studying Psychology and Sociology at Leeds University, that did not change.

“While everyone else was out clubbing, I was getting up in the morning to muck out my horse,” she laughed.

But it was this love of horses that led Jemma to discover equine therapy – the practice of using a range of treatments that involve activities with horses to promote human physical and mental health – during her studies.

Paired with her Masters in Social Psychology and three years training as a clinical psychologist with the NHS, specialising in child and adolescent mental health, Jemma started to explore her fascination in practice.

“Training as a clinical psychologist, working with children and adolescents, I started to notice patterns,” she said.

“Children would be invited but not attend, or they would come into the room and find it really hard to talk about their experiences or trust professionals.

“Many of the young people had had really difficult life experiences with adults, so trusting them is really tricky.

“I started to wonder what would happen if you took the kids out of the usual environment and put them somewhere completely different.”

So in 2009 Jemma started to trial equine therapy, offering free sessions to children attending schools around Camden, north west London, during the holidays – with huge success.

Explaining how it got children talking, she said:  “We had been told they wouldn’t talk about how they were feeling but there they were, saying how the horse had upset them or annoyed them or how they felt – and showing us that this worked.”

From there, Strength And Learning Through Horses was officially born as a charity in 2011, securing the Edgeware site a few years later and building up to where they are today – working with schools, individuals and even some young adults in prisons.

As well as the therapy-side to the charity, a 12-week long educational programme was honed, to help people develop skills and boost their chances in education and employment – doing everything from helping muck out the horses to caring for and training the horses to cope with new situations.

Dealing with 500 families a year, the 20-strong team of clinical psychologists and psychotherapists, experienced equine specialists and youth workers, help an array of children and adults aged between eight and 25.

Over 50 per cent of those are diagnosed as SEN (Special Educational Needs), meaning they have learning difficulties or disabilities, while 38 per cent have previous safeguarding involvement, 21 per cent are currently safeguarded and 20 per cent are looked after children.

“Some of the stories I have heard break my heart,” Jemma said.

But she explained the difference the charity’s work makes can be life changing.

“The biggest changes I see are those who aren’t in school or leaving the house, they are just living behind closed doors, not letting any adults in their life, and coming to the stables, is the first time they are engaging with adults who are there to help them,” she said.

“We have a number of children who have been selectively mute following trauma and working with the horses, they have had to find their voice, often in order to speak for the horse, for example, if they disagree with how the horse is being handled, or how people talked about a horse.

“We had one child who had been through significant trauma and we started to see them smile again and eventually, even lead a team and help keep others safe.”

And she added: “We have many children with very challenging and unsafe behaviour, who can be constantly running away or having arguments with others, and through the horses, begin to form relationships and help train a horse – ten times their size.”

And even in her own life, Jemma stands by the difference horses can have.

“A few years back, I was riding a horse and it got chased by a dog. I tried to get off but didn’t in time,” she said.

“I was actually run over by the horse and I snapped my knee and I did find myself anxious to get riding again.

“I practised all of the techniques that we use with young people, like noticing how I hold stress in my body and how that impacts the horse, or where my focus is and where my mind is at, and using the horses to help me stay grounded and present.”

Knowing how much of a difference the stables makes every day has only added to Jemma and her team’s urgency to secure funding for their new venue, in Barnet.

With the capacity to help 1,000 children and adolescents – double the number they currently work with – they need £150,000 to build the correct facilities on the 30-acre plot of land they have found.

“We’ve absolutely outgrown where we are now and we can’t reach the amount of young people we need to reach,” she said.

“We have this perfect new space that will be ours for 25 years but it is completely dilapidated and we need to build it into this safe stable space.”

She added: “If we don’t, we will have literally nowhere to practise and we will have to close our doors until we do.”

Members of the public can donate to the campaign via Crowdfunder: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/p/home-our-horses

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