Transcript for
Equine therapy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children

Runtime 00:28:53
Released 29/4/22

Narrator (00:02):

Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.

Dana Shen (00:08):

Today, we will be speaking with Professor Juli Coffin, a prominent Aboriginal researcher with research expertise in cultural security education and research across a diverse range of disciplines, including chronic diseases, nutrition, contextualising bullying, and health promotion. In 2021, Professor Coffin was a WA Mental Health Award winner for best practice and direct standing contributions to mental health in WA. Her work with Yawadani Jan-ga project is an innovative project which aims to include the development of culturally secure or methods to uniformly assess social, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing outcomes among Aboriginal young people in the Kimberley, through the delivery of an equine assisted learning intervention on country. Today, we will be hearing from Juli Coffin. Juli, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Before we get into the detail of your work, could you tell me a little bit about yourself to begin with?

Juli Coffin (01:05):

Not sure what would be interesting to know, but I’m in Yamaji Country. I’ve lived here for six, going on seven years now. And my association with the Kimberley and Broome was coming up here when I was a little girl and there was one shopping centre and it wasn’t really a tourist town. And one of my nannas used to come up and visit the old people in the native hospital. There used to be separate hospital for Aboriginal people. And I was pretty small when that happened. Yeah. I reckon I would’ve been, I don’t know, five, six maybe. And yeah. Then I used to visit this area a little bit from Headland. Spent most of my life in Headland and had my first job as a teacher. And I spent quite a few weekends coming up to the Kimberley and used to drive up and down the road.

Juli Coffin (01:55):

But yeah, I’d never lived here before. So this was a really nice move for me. I’d been living in the Pilbara and the Midwest before, which I really enjoyed. And yeah, something brought me back up this way, I think. I’m not sure what it was initially, and then had a job up here for a few years with Notre Dame running the uni. But I really wanted to get back into the work that I’d started in Geraldton, which was around really trying to cater or do something a bit different around the social, emotional wellbeing of our young Aboriginal people. I just felt like over the years, I’d probably sat around the table at countless meetings, particularly around suicide or kind of youth crime or youth incarceration, or you name it. It’s like, why aren’t young people attending school and why aren’t Aboriginal people achieving?

Juli Coffin (02:46):

And that was actually the topic of my PhD. And what came out of that was this massive disconnect for young people around relationships with themselves and their families and their wider community. And that school wasn’t necessarily the problem. School was often a safe haven for some young people. But as soon as things went a bit pear-shaped sort of relationship wise, then young people would, for example, disengage with school. And then that cycle of truancy starts. Then they get behind. And I just thought, “Well, I’d really like to catch young people before they get to that point.” What we’re doing is not working, and don’t get me wrong, there’s people doing amazing work. But it’s just not quite hitting the mark.

Juli Coffin (03:29):

And so when I first became really interested in what I’d been offered through my life, which was being around the horses, and I just thought, “Well, you always get told, when you find your gift, you got to give it away.” So I feel like my gift that I got given was growing up around horses and what they did and how they supported me and the different challenges I had, like everybody has had in their life. Things that I got through and how the horses were always the constant for me. And so, yeah. I guess that’s sort of what I wanted to give to young people. Something where I could combine the horses and sort of some healing or supporting young people as they moved through these different times in their lives.

Dana Shen (04:11):

That sounds like an amazing set of opportunities and experiences for you, Juli, and what a wonderful and amazing gift to be able to give others.

Juli Coffin (04:19):

What I was noticing from the work I did in Geraldton, did a one-year trial there. I was noticing that the people that were coming in, the young people, they were kind of getting younger and younger. So you were getting sort of six year olds with signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. You would probably expect to see the same level in maybe a 30, 40-year-old. And I guess it then alludes to why young people just disengage in life. And I was saying to somebody once, “Look, all these programs that we offer young people, they’re great, right? There’s some amazing opportunities for young people. But I feel like young people don’t stick at them because while that program’s unoften, nothing’s changed for them inside themselves. Nothing’s changed for them in their environment. Nothing’s changed for the way that they respond to these stresses and things that come across them in their life.”

Juli Coffin (05:12):

And I said, “We really need to address that. That’s the key to keeping young people alive. And we have to catch young people before they disengage in life.” So it’s like the old adage, which is, you have the best mass program in the world, but if the kid can’t hear, they’re not going to be able to take advantage of it.” We could have all these great programs, but if a young person isn’t engaged in themselves and isn’t in tune and in a space where they can engage, they’re not going to. Or they’re not going to get as much out of it. That’s the part that I really wanted to nurture and look after with our young people. And when I say young, the program is six to 26, which is hopefully also tailoring towards some of that intergenerational change. We are dealing with young parents and some people by 26 may have three or four children, but may not have ever addressed some of the issues in themselves.

Juli Coffin (06:10):

And of course, they’re going to pass some of those maybe not so good things on their little people in their life. So I really like that we could offer that such a wide catchment. I just thought my wish there was some kind of opportunity to do things differently, not just maybe be sent to a doctor and given tablets to make you sit still or calm you down, if there’s actually something that’s causing that. And the reason I really love this work is because of the different parts that it can connect with with young people. And what we see every day when young people come out is a transformation. It’s just a shift. I feel very blessed to be in the space. And I think just able to offer that gift. And if that’s all I ever did, I’ll be pretty happy with my life.

Juli Coffin (06:52):

So yeah, I think it’s really important. And I really like the fact that we can do it in a really culturally secure way. So all of our practitioners are Aboriginal. I was very adamant that we have Aboriginal people working with Aboriginal people, especially in that space, in that very intimate, social, emotional wellbeing space. We have people on our staff that, they’re role models in their own communities. And it’s giving them skills to pass on some of the amazing attributes that they have, that they may not necessarily, in other types of work, get to do. And so it’s really nice for that different style of workforce development as well. So I feel like the community being behind the approach and the program obviously is of the utmost importance to me, and having that support has meant that we can grow the service and grow what we offer.

Juli Coffin (07:46):

And we can maintain it as a culturally secure service because we get the input and the guidance when we need it. And I don’t have a fear that it’ll get swept up into our westernised model, because there’s people not just like me, but there’s many people who are very staunch in what we’re doing and we will stick to the script, if that makes sense. And that’s hard sometimes, when you look at funding and so on. So I think we have enough strength and conviction in what we’re doing, and now we have enough evidence coming out.

Dana Shen (08:18):

So I wondered, could you tell me about equine assisted learning and a bit more about the program? What does it actually look like in practice?

Juli Coffin (08:26):

Yeah. So equine assisted learning is really where the relationship between the, what we call a practitioner, trained in equine assisted learning or equine assisted psychotherapy, runs a session and the horse is the star. So they actually do all the work. And they are in the space with a young person. And it really depends. It’s really hard to describe what a session looks like. But the basic structure of our sessions are that young person is either picked up with our transport service or they are dropped off out at the block. And it’s just about four Ks out of town. So it’s not too far. They’ll come into the block and meet up with their person first, their practitioner. And we try to match up gender with gender. So obviously try to have young men with our young male practitioners, or men.

Juli Coffin (09:24):

And we also have some requests that people do want a specific gender or don’t. So we just try to match up the practitioner. So once that’s sorted out, the practitioner will look at their case notes and their referral and just see what this young person’s been dealing with because we deal in the trauma and healing space, but we also do leadership activities. So really important to offer both and keep people guessing, why someone’s coming out. So we sort of match up whatever’s on offer. And we basically work through a series of about seven themes. And the first of the themes is just around awareness. Awareness of self and others. And we move into other components like regulation and boundaries and feelings as natural and facing life’s challenges and positive self-thought and so on. And we quite often like to build young people up from coming in as individuals for as long as they need, into a paired session, and then eventually a small group session.

Juli Coffin (10:32):

So what we are hoping is that while they’re with us and the horses, that they get to practice those relationship skills and they get to have horses there supporting them and the practitioner. And other young people that are kind of like-minded have been through a similar probably series, but may have affected them all very differently of course. But just that there’s some understandings of things like, for example, boundaries and so on. So yeah, a typical sort of first session would be… In every session we do a grounding. So it takes about usually just five to 10 minutes. And that’s a bit of a self-meditation where young people are just asked to close their eyes. And depending on what they present with, just tuning into different things, opening up the sensors and just shaking off the morning and the previous day and what they did on the weekend and last night.

Juli Coffin (11:22):

And it just gets them to tune into what they’re doing and why they’re there. And it really grounds them. So it connects them with the earth and just the environment. And look, it can take five to 10 minutes probably, at longest. And then they’ll move into what we call a series of experiments or opportunities with the horse. And that will be whatever the practitioner sets up. It’s a rough example, because it’s really hard, because it’s client-centred and we move and change all the time with what they need. But let’s say the theme was awareness. We might ask the young person to do a herd meet. So they might typically go into the larger paddock after they’ve done this grounding. And we give them a lot of, a bit of a safety briefing as well, of course, because you’ve got 600 kilos there that moves at speed.

Juli Coffin (12:09):

And lot of young people have not been around horses. So if they were comfortable, they’d go into the herd and we would offer them something like, “You can go in and… want you to go in there and be exactly what you want to be and interact how you want to. Here’s a bit of horse wisdom. Horses are herd animals. They often are in a hierarchy and a relationship and you’re going into their space. So just be very aware.” So we’ll give lots of sort of guidance. We hold space for that young person. If they want us to come in, we can go in. Sometimes little people, we might even hold their hand and walk in or they might even sit on our lap under the tree. And so it really depends on that young person. But probably a more typical session, the young person is usually pretty comfortable going in.

Juli Coffin (12:56):

So when they come out, we’ll say to them something like, “Just going to ask you to go in there for a few minutes. And when I think the time’s up, I’m going to ask you to come out. And when you come out, we’ll have a little chat about it.” So what it’s based on is all observations. So for example, if you were in with the horse and you’ve come out I might say to you something like, “Oh, I noticed the horse moved over towards you. Can you tell me about that? How was that for you?” So all the question line is nonjudgmental. It’s all open ended and it’s all about being client-centred. So it’s whatever they experience. There’s no right or wrong. And depending on what has come out of that first little bit, they most likely will be sent back in with the horses, with maybe a task.

Juli Coffin (13:42):

So for example, if they said, “Oh, look. That really big horse come up to me and noticed me. I felt a bit scared.” So you might say, “Well, how do you know you’re scared? What does that feel like?” “Oh, my body was tight,” or… So when they go back in, we might offer to say, “Look, when the horse comes this time, I want you to take three really big breaths. I want you to think about your body not being tight and see what happens.” And look. Because it’s based on phenomenology, right? We don’t know what the horse is going to do. They’re not trained in any way. We don’t know which horse is to pick up on which young person’s vibration, what the interaction’s ever going to be. So we feed off every observation, I guess. But just to ensure that the practitioners are all trained in a way that it’s all nonjudgmental.

Juli Coffin (14:30):

So we never say things like, “I think that horse really likes you.” We only talk about what we see. “Did you notice the horse’s ears?” “Oh, I noticed you moved away.” I noticed you were really smiling. Tell me about that.” And sometimes young people don’t want to even open up and talk about some of those things. So what’s really nice about having a horse is it’s kind of like the elephant in the room. You can really detract from that young person. And if they’re not really engaging initially, and look, some people don’t. Some young people really don’t want to talk for a little while until they feel comfortable. And that might be three sessions. And you just ride that. And the nice thing is you can talk lots about the horse. So if they’re very in their own head and, for example, if they’ve had very negative thoughts, even as serious as suicidal thoughts, or, “The whole world is terrible,” and really not in a good place, it’s a really nice thing to deflect everything onto the horse.

Juli Coffin (15:34):

So you can imagine being in a room with a young person, where would you deflect stuff? There’s not the opportunity to do that. So it’s a very different type of way of working with young people. And often a session will take maybe around 40, 45 minutes of kind of contact time with the horse. And that young person might have been sent in and out of the space with the horses three or four times. We always do a closure. So we always ask sort of the question around, “What do you think the horses were trying to show you today? Or what did you pick up from today?” And the things that we record in our case notes are lots of photos, lots of video. We don’t get young people to fill in boxes or tick forms, because I just refuse to do that.

Juli Coffin (16:17):

I find no value in that. Young people can work the system better than anybody. They’ve had lots of practise usually. And often the information you’re getting on those forms is really not valid. I really like the photo and the video and observational notes because that’s really authentic. And I feel like we’re getting into that side of it. And you could correlate that down the track with some sort of a paper-based format. But for us, our biggest learnings are from the young person’s feedback and what they do even probably more than what they say, which is really nice. Because people can say, “Oh, I feel great.” But when they go in with the horse, you can see a whole different picture. And then you can tune into that and talk about it. Whereas if someone says, “Oh, look, I feel great,” and you turn around and go, “Well, no you don’t. I can see that you don’t feel great.”

Juli Coffin (17:09):

That’s really confronting for young people. So I find that the sessions are very… They’re very gentle. They’re very non-invasive. They’re very self-paced. And the young person will get out of it what they’re ready to get out of it. And the horse knows the right amount of medicine to give. That’s why they’re just so amazing to be around. And after the sessions finish, the young person will do their bit of closure and normally say goodbye to the horses or the horse and off they go back to school. And then we do some follow up with young people. And if they’re in a school environment or if they’ve gone back home, we sort of do some check-ins at about the five session mark and the 10 session mark to see how they’re going.

Juli Coffin (17:52):

And really, when a young person comes out, they can do all number of things. It’s up to the creativity of the practitioner and the young person, what they’re up for. So we do painting with the horses. We do obstacle courses. We do some horsemanship activity. When young people are making requests of the horses where they’re learning how to do some of those other skills as well, like haltering and leading and really joining up with the horse and forming a bond. As I mentioned, we might be doing something in a pair, in a group of four. So the horses are just this amazing, adaptable… Well, for me, they’re my colleagues, that never complain. But sometimes they do need a rest as well from the work because they absorb a lot of energy. So it’s about being really aware of their body language and when they’ve had enough.

Juli Coffin (18:50):

For example now, we’ve had no kids out at the block. No young people. And the horses have been on a really nice spell. So when you go out there, you’ve got five or six horses just on you, because they’re really craving that interaction because they seriously, really love it. When you go out there and a young person goes to get a horse out of a herd environment, if the horse moves away, well, the horse doesn’t want to be involved. But that’s actually very rare that the horse will ever move away. Most horses are like, “Oh, yeah, I’m keen.” And sometimes the same horse shows up three or four times in a row and you think, “Oh, they’re just in that space where they want to be there.” So it’s really interesting about the horses’ dynamics, as much as the young people. I find it pretty fascinating.

Dana Shen (19:41):

Thanks, Juli. How long does the program work with kids?

Juli Coffin (19:45):

Normally we do sort of a series of about 10 sessions and then we see where young people are at. We get a lot re-referrals. So young people having, say, 10 sessions and then not quite being at a space where they need to be, or not being able to maintain that dose rate or whatever you want to call it, that they’ve been exposed to. So for some young people, who’ve had lots and lots going on. They might need 20 sessions to get to that really good space. And so we get re-referrals probably from that kind of top end of young people. And the very interesting thing that we’re looking into in the research context of this work is, how many sessions do young Aboriginal people need when they’re coming in for what type of preexisting referral? Right?

Juli Coffin (20:32):

So let’s just say someone comes in and they’ve had a very close sibling suicide. They’ve been in a lot of care through their life and they may have been exposed to quite a bit of trauma. 10 sessions might be just scratching the surface for them. They might be just starting to get the supports that they were possibly not getting or needed in a different way, which is through the horses and through themselves, resourcing themselves. They might not have had any opportunity to do that before. So 20, 30. Who knows? And that’s part of what we’re really looking at with our young people around, what is the dose rate? Because in a mainstream context, the research tells us that 10 sessions, you should be then able to maintain lifelong sustainable change.

Juli Coffin (21:23):

And we know that with some of our young people, that’s very true. But with that very high-end trauma-based referral sort of section of young people, we’re probably seeing at least double that, maybe even more. So that’s part of the science behind what we’re doing as well, which is really important in the space for other people working in equine assisted learning, particularly when they have very complex trauma clients. And whether they’re dealing with Aboriginal young people or not, there’ll be a lot of learnings in there around the very high-end young people. And unfortunately, as we know, the burden of trauma and relationship breakdown and so on is very high with our young people.

Dana Shen (22:09):

And ongoing as well.

Juli Coffin (22:10):

Exactly. It’s something that once young people are in that cycle and… Look, my hopes would be that one day we can really do something about the flow of young people into incarceration in such a young age. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a facility that could offer a last chance before they go to the Banksias and the Don Dales. Where is that safety net for young people who have never had the opportunity to get those types of supports? It’s not a magic bullet, but it is a really important support mechanism in ensuring that all those other things are successful and that young people feel good about themself. I mean, how important is it to change and affect the way someone feels about themself?

Juli Coffin (23:01):

I think people have got to ask themselves in their work and their jobs, “Is that really important in what I’m doing?” And if it’s not, maybe that’s why you’re not getting good results. Or you’re not affecting change, because unless we’re all on the same page about that, and the importance of that, all that will happen is this kind of superficial stuff like, “Oh, yeah, we got 20 kids turned up for three weeks in a row and we did this and that.” How do we know what effect we’ve had on young people? We can’t measure it. So it’s really important that we have measurement.

Dana Shen (23:33):

So what would be your key learnings that you think are most translatable for other practitioners? As we know, not every practitioner can go and work with horses. They might be in a city or they might not have access to these kinds of facilities. But what are the principles that they’d be able to take and use in their interactions with young people that you’ve learned? What’s really important for practitioners to understand?

Juli Coffin (23:58):

I guess, what some of the principles are, I guess, back to the way that we do business, which is having Aboriginal people with Aboriginal people, always trying to maintain things in a culturally secure way. So creating a space that’s non-confronting is really important, and non-judgmental. I think that allows young people to be themselves and express themselves when there’s no judgement . And unfortunately, all of us come with judgement as human beings. So it’s something you really have to fight. When you’re sort of working in this space, it’s very normal as human beings to make a judgement . So it’s some of those principles that you have to unlearn some of those ways that you might have been used to and been doing without knowing. So I guess it’s some of that unconscious bias stuff. And some of that that we are very aware of. But really for us, having Aboriginal people lead and run the work itself on the ground creates that by itself. Creates that opportunity by itself.

Juli Coffin (25:04):

So really privileging Aboriginal people to lead the way of solution-based work, as well, is I think what’s integral, well, for me, as an Aboriginal person, but is integral for us having any success. And that’s not always easy. It can be very complex and it can be hard to, particularly, in some areas to attract the right people and sustain the right stuff. But I think that’s always what you’re aimed for, if you can. And if you can’t, and you are in a practice or a situation where that’s not an option, even having another Aboriginal person in the room, if that’s the type of session you’re offering, or with you, can make a world of difference for that young person, if you happen to not be an Aboriginal person.

Juli Coffin (25:58):

I think the other principles that we really stick to is that it is very child or client focused, and it is at their pace. So we don’t have any set objectives of what we want to get to. We have themes that we work through. And some young people, if they don’t get past the second theme, which is kind of around regulation, well, then they can just sit there for as long as they want. It doesn’t matter to us. So we’re not bound by some of the constraints that I guess very traditional based programs are often bound by.

Juli Coffin (26:33):

They’ll be saying, “Well, by week two, we’ve got to be doing this, and week three…” And so the difference for us is we are session-based, for a start. So it’s how many occasions are serviced or sessions. How many times I get to interact with you, is what I count. One of the other principles that we have to adhere to is being super flexible. We have young people who are coming out and involved in the program who are awaiting sentencing, for example. And we want to, you give them some support. They come out from the bail house or whatever. And we might have to change their session five times, but we don’t give up on them.

Juli Coffin (27:12):

The other thing we do is we stick with that young person so we create continuity. When I don’t want to be a creator of more stress or trauma for young people. So if I’m going to offer something, I’ve got to make sure that I can pretty well offer it every week. And if that young person doesn’t come because they, I don’t know, maybe they don’t want to, or something’s been going on or they’re out of town, for other reasons, we give young people three or four goes at not showing up. Because look. Life can be very complex for our young people. And when you’re a minor, so when you’re under 18, under 16, you don’t have a lot of control over your life. So if you haven’t slept for two nights because of things going on at home, or if you’ve had to just travel for two funerals and missed a week of school, well, you can’t hold that against young people. So that flexibility of the way we offer that service, I think has to be built in when you’re catering for young people, some of those things. Well, in our communities, anyway.

Narrator (28:22):

Visit our website at to access a range of resources to assist your practice. Brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health. Led by Emerging Minds, the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health, under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.

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