Among the healing horses
Children who are dealing with trauma or challenges get to interact with horses that have walked a hard path, and both benefit, writes Claire Keeton
Before Steph McCulloch can describe how abused horses and vulnerable children rescue each other, she must rein in a youngish mare. Dreamer has already broken down one fence in her desire to get to a stallion with a flowing blonde mane, and her behaviour is making a gelding restless.
“It’s like a soap opera here,” says Steph of Tom Ro, their stable in Noordhoek, Cape Town. Here 17 unwanted and abused horses have been saved by her mother, Gill. “Caesar get out of the shed!” yells Steph as she spots a horse raiding the feed shed.
A thoroughbred named Lindor wanders over and with a raspy tongue licks our hands, his equivalent of a lockdown elbow bump. When Pyrotech rubs his itchy and snotty muzzle against my back, Steph quips that at least he has a fly mask on.
Saved from neglect and euthanasia, these horses form powerful bonds with the children and teens who come to them with their own scars to heal.
Bonny is a pony with a broken neck that looks almost serpentine. Gill says: “We had a little boy here who was sitting on the floor while Steph explained the safety rules, and Bonny kept breaking through the circle and touching him.
“It was like the pony was picking him. Later we learnt the child had a hump on his back, not unlike her neck … Bonny is still his baby,” she says of the boy, now a 21-year-old man.
The horses and children communicate with each other without words. Bradley, a boy of about 10, stands next to Flash in his stall, stroking his flank and plaiting his mane long after the others have left.
Ponies like Flash allow the children, many of whom have never seen horses before, to feel comfortable. Even around the big thoroughbreds, they learn to relax.
Some children, like a boy of four on the autism spectrum, respond immediately to the horses’ calm. The little boy is usually physically tense, yet he unwinds without hesitation when he is placed on Flash’s back.
“He just flopped and turned to butter and flowed into him,” says Hugh Ingpen, co-founder of the upliftment centre Amazing Grace. “He threw his arms around his neck and you could see from the look on his face that he could feel the connection.”
Amazing Grace was started by Ingpen and his wife, Lydia, in 2015 to support vulnerable children of Westlake, also in Cape Town, aged three to 12 years. One morning a week he brings about 10 kids across the mountain to the paddocks to help to groom, lead and ride the horses, a highlight of their week.
“The first time they came they were absolutely terrified. They had never seen, let alone touched, a horse before. The horses treated them with gentleness and kindness, which was the biggest eye opener,” he says.
Thandiswa, who wears the haven’s jodhpurs with flair, says confidently: “When you meet a horse, you must let them smell you and you must not scream.
“Caesar has a crush on the new horse and he’s grumpy,” she says, with a laugh belying her size. The children have learnt about the horses’ temperaments and understand they have their own moods and needs.
Looking after the herd is demanding and, even with volunteers pitching in, Gill and Steph have almost no chance to slow down. Steph, who works as a dance instructor, gets up at 4am most mornings to take care of the horses and teaches classes into the night.
Gill, the founder of Tom Ro — named after her beloved parents, Tom and Rosaleen — works full-time on the haven, which also offers a refuge to traumatised women who escape human trafficking.
Gill remembers one woman in her 20s finding her experience with a horse named Bella cathartic. “She said that she did not want to be there. I told her that nobody was forcing her to do anything …
“She was standing with closed eyes and Bella came and gently nudged her and she wrapped her arms around her neck. Bella blocked me with her body and the young woman started sobbing and sobbing, and that is when she started to heal.
“We have had so many experiences like that,” says Gill. “We are not psychologists. We are not equine therapists. We safely facilitate equine interaction and we never force a horse to do anything. We always treat them with respect.”
The horses need to recover from their own emotional and physical traumas. Dreamer’s mother was so emaciated when the pair were rescued on a freeway that she could not be saved.
In 1989, Gill’s own beloved horse died, the same year her son Patrick was born. The baby was diagnosed with cancer and given a low chance of survival, needing operations and intravenous chemotherapy for most of his first year alive.
“I’m a staunch Irish Catholic. He was on the
Vatican prayer list,” says Gill of her 31-year-old son.
Bonny, with her neck broken by a car, and Ashwood, a gelding with bone problems from a wellknown lineage, were their first rescues.
“About six years ago we had a young man come here who was very depressed at the time, and he formed an immediate bond with Ashwood. He wrote us a letter saying the only time he felt life was worth living and had hope was with the horses.”
In 2012 the Tom Ro Haven officially opened, and two years later Gill was medically retrenched after a total thyroidectomy left her immunity compromised.
She celebrated her 61st birthday recently and does not give Covid-19 a thought, being fully occupied with the horses and the people whose lives they brighten. “The horses bring so much joy when there is so much heartache,” says Gill.
Steph lost a baby at 12 weeks and says the horses got her through the grief. “I was down and out for two days but they needed me. I have witnessed first-hand the power of this remarkable herd to heal.”
The volunteers, who help to pick up horse manure, clean the paddocks and tack and maintain the stalls, also benefit from their efforts. Introvert Venetia le Roux, 52, says they get her out of the house when her husband is working in Angola, and ease her anxiety.
Boom, Bonny and Flash have become social media stars. A short film of Bonny giving birth to Flash has had nearly a million views and the tug-of-war game Boom likes to play with a stick with other horses, set to the pandemic tune Zol, is a TikTok hit.
Despite their fame, their future is not secure — though unexpected people step up to help, says Gill. Generation Schools owns the land they occupy and gave them a temporary home when they had to leave Cape Point in February.
The horses’ daily feed is sponsored but all other expenses are not. Each horse costs about R2,000 a month in feed, pain medicines, blankets and tack.
If one of the Tom Ro horses leaves the paddocks, the ripples are felt. Lindor, Pilgrim, Rosie and
Meredith whinny and run alongside the fence when one of them goes out for a walk. This quartet cannot be ridden because of their past mistreatment.
Steph says they called in an animal communicator to find out why Lindor and Meredith could not settle after they had been saved from euthanasia. “They were worried about two horses left behind — those were Rosie and Pilgrim,” she says.
“When Rosie first came here, she would stand in the paddock and quiver with fear. Slowly she would let us sit nearby,” she says of the horse who now “wears the pants with Lindor”. Pointing to dips in Lindor’s back, she says the thoroughbred’s muscles were broken in the past, possibly by bush racing.
Now the horses run only for fun, and, on special holidays, they are up for a dress-up party.
I was down and out … but they needed me. I have witnessed first-hand the power of this remarkable herd to heal
Tom Ro Haven for Equines and Children