Interview With Horses 4 Heroes’ Martin Shaw on the Power of Horses and Equine Healing for Soldiers

Share this post

We had the honour of interviewing Martin Shaw, CEO of Wounded Heroes who runs an amazing program – Horses 4 Heroes – to help soldiers heal from PTSD.

Wounded Heroes launched its Equine Program, using horses to connect with and heal current-serving soldiers.

Research has confirmed many benefits to this type of therapy, including the lowering of blood pressure and alleviating stress/reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The history of Equine Healing dates back to WW1 in England, where Ms Oliver Sands took her horses to the hospital, to provide riding training as part of a soldier’s rehabilitation program. Since then, past and future participants see amazing results through the exercises with the horses used to promote physical, occupational, and emotional growth.

And why does it work? Well, a 2018 study shows that horses respond to human emotional cues by integrating the emotional value of the voice they hear with that of the facial expressions they see. They originally use these social cues within their species, but it’s been found they can also distinguish these cues from humans. The relationship between the horse and participant then helps to build confidence, self-esteem, and belief through continuous interaction and exercises.

We spoke to Martin all about this, to learn more about how horses are changing people’s lives:

Baxta: Could you tell us about who you are and what you do?

Martin: The organisation was started in 2007 by our chairman and founder Jim Shapcott, who’s a veteran. He is a reservist  – commissioned in 1966, AND retiring in 1973 as a Captain in the second fourteenth.

At the time, he was National Marketing Manager for Devine Homes, when he was approached by his old unit 2/14th at Gallipoli Barracks to provide a place where the families of those soldiers deployed could meet and support each other.

Wounded Heroes Australia is a national community ‘volunteer’ organisation, that supports the Australian Defence Force, our Veterans and their families in financial crisis, or facing homelessness. We provide front-line, emergency support with items including food, electricity bills, rent and homecare – within 12-24 hours

He then went onto create our equine programme Horses, 4 Heroes, to help support serving soldiers with their mental wellbeing and PTSD.

I came on in January 2011. I met Jim, and I liked the organisation because it’s volunteer-based. And I’d like the fact that it’s at that stage, it was 94 cents in the dollar, on public donations. This month (Jan 2021) marks 10 years of me volunteering with the organisation.

Baxta: How do horses work with the soldiers?

Martin: We run this free program mainly around Defence Force members to help them with their mental wellbeing and recovery

We have ten horses, who live in 30 acres in Whitehall in Brisbane. It helps with soldier’s rehabilitation and I can tell you some of the outcomes have put me in tears and I’m a pretty tough guy, but it makes me cry.

Soldiers are taken out of their environment when they need help and spend time in recovery centres and the equine healing can be part of this treatment.

When they come and see us, they spend about four days on the program. One of two of those days are spent grooming the horses and getting to know them. Then as they do, they’re allocated one horse each, but actually, it’s the horse who always chooses them.

The horses are gentle and really cheeky, which is just what the soldiers need and they also can read human beings.

The program encompasses a range of treatments that includes activities with horses to promote physical, occupational, and emotional growth in persons with PTSD.

It helps with the soldier’s self-esteem and confidence, to be around a 500-kilo animal, which is doing what they’re told and having fun with them. This benefits, in particular, those people who as a result of mental distress PTSD, and have often experienced themselves as powerless. It helps to reaffirm their self-worth.

Baxta: Where do you find the horses?

Martin: From very different places. The horses we get sometimes from a summer rescue, where they’ve been abandoned and left, tied up in a field. So they come to us, instead. In other cases, we are given older horses, given by the Queensland Police.

Baxta: How do you fund the program?

Martin: Some of it, we fund ourselves. We do a lot of fundraising too, where companies and individuals who like what we’re doing, fund the program.

We find it quite difficult to access government funding, so all donations are welcome to help the program keep going. There’s no state or federal government money for our organisation, currently.

Baxta: How can people get involved or help the organisation?

Martin: There are a few ways we’d love people to help. The first is, you can donate here and every little does help us. You can also become a volunteer in our peer-to-peer network.