One year ago, 13-year-old Shamanii avoided other kids and suffered such severe anxiety she didn't want to go to school.
Now, in the words of her mother Alma, Shamanii is "loving school, absolutely loving it".
"She’s putting herself out there, auditioning for productions. She’s made a whole lot of new friends."
All because of a horse named Humphrey.
The gentle giant Clydesdale-Andalusian cross is an equine therapy horse.
Shamanii had experienced trauma and was withdrawing from school and friends.
A social worker at welfare organisation Child and Family Services Ballarat (CAFS), "prescribed" Shamanii once-a-week sessions with Humphrey.
Over 16 weeks, while counsellors taught Shamanii how to approach and groom him and lead him through an obstacle course, she learnt more about relating to humans.
Such as the importance of reading non-verbal cues.
"You can relate the horse’s emotions to people," Shamanii says. "Like, knowing when to leave them alone and when they need help."
‘‘[Counsellors] Michelle and Sarah told me about their ears. So if they’re like, at the front, that means they’re happy and comfortable, and if they’re backwards or moving, it means they’re uncomfortable or anxious.’’
Equine therapy will be a key part of CAFS’ new Care Farm near Creswick on the site of the former Tangled Maze, when it opens to clients, mostly traumatised children and youths, in February.
The three-hectare farm, bought for $1.1 million, will integrate conventional counselling with gardening, cooking, art and equine therapy, and interaction with goats, chickens, rabbits and dogs.
It will treat kids who have experienced school disengagement and anxiety, and parents’ drug abuse, violence, sexual abuse and neglect.
The farm is an echo from the past for CAFS. For almost a century after it started in 1865, as the Ballarat District Orphan Asylum, it ran farms for food and to teach kids work skills.
Psychologist Dr Tara Darby, who will work at the farm, said childhood trauma can affect the way the brain organises, including sensory integration (responses to touch, sound and other senses); relationship building; and the ability to regulate emotions.
Before some people are ready for "cognitive interventions" such as counselling, they need to learn how to handle more primitive feelings like fear, anger and frustration.
"Horses are pretty stubborn animals, and if they don’t want to work with you, they’re not going to,’’ Dr Darby said. ‘‘So for you to be able to win their trust and get them to follow instructions, it means there’s a great sense of achievement and mastery for kids."
Shamanii’s mother, Alma, is astounded at the change in Shamanii.
"She had a hard year in grade 6 with personal issues. As such her schooling suffered. She didn’t want to go to school. It was all too much for her. Working with horses gave 'Manii confidence in herself ...
"[She] doesn’t like attention and doesn’t like crowds but she’ll now go to class and put her hand up and talk to the teacher with 20 kids around her."