Providing stable life for young struggling with mental health

FOR fans of adult animation series BoJack Horseman, the term “therapy horse” wouldn’t be unfamiliar.

Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show features a horse who is a therapist — known as Doctor Champ.

But this character is based on the truth.

Dr Jemma Hockley runs equine assisted-therapy centre Learning Through Horses in London, working with young people aged from five to 25 who are struggling with mental health issues, emotional and behavioural problems and/or learning difficulties.

Many have also experienced abuse and significant trauma.

The 43-year-old London-born mother-of-two, who runs the charity alongside business partner Rosie Edwards, said: “The young people we work with struggle to engage in traditional therapy and classroom settings, but thrive in the inclusive outdoor setting of our stables.

“Our horses, of which we have nine, respond to the emotions of young people by reacting fearfully to anger; nervously to anxiety or dominantly to lack of confidence, for example.

“This feedback enables young people to reflect on and alter their behaviour in order to build successful relationships with the horses.”

But the charity has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

While most other businesses can function easily using online video conferencing app Zoom or other non-contact methods, Jemma’s can not.

And it has become a big issue.

Jemma, who read psychology and sociology at Leeds University, explained: “The young people we deal with are not coping at all.

“For some of them, coming to us was the only time they might have left the house or it was the only positive part of their week.

“Some of them are stuck in very small, disadvantaged areas, in small houses or flats with no access to outside space.

“A lot of them are in council accommodation, having free school meals because their parents can’t provide food for them.”

Jemma, who was raised in a Reform Judaism household, but now attends a Liberal synagogue in London, continued: “A lot of them also come from schools, but those are now shut, so they aren’t getting that support.

“We’re really worried about some of the kids who we know are on the cusp of dropping out of school — with us being shut, and the schools being shut, all of their positive activities have ceased, and we know, and have been told that a lot of our clients have gone missing.

“Some of them don’t have access to the internet and can’t engage with us on something like Zoom.

“They come from environments with safeguarding concerns and parenting difficulties — so the kids are really not being supported.”

Those who can get in contact, have been doing so, and have asked for updates on the horses as well as the stable dogs.

And for those with internet access, Zoom sessions have been created, although this is still difficult, as some of the young people are unable to communicate without a horse being there.

“The horse is a tool for them to be able to speak to us, or they might want to do something with the horse and tell us what the horse is feeling instead of them.

“We’ve created a really comprehensive programme for how our clients can cope during lockdown, but it’s still extremely hard.”

Funding is another big issue for Jemma, as the charity costs £30,000 every three months to run, although they are working on fundraising ideas to combat this.

Experts have warned that there will be a huge mental health crisis once lockdown ends, with an echo pandemic predicted for the majority of young people who have had, what they considered to be normality changed beyond all recognition.

“We’re expecting a massive influx of new clients, and we’re expecting some of our current clients to have deteriorated massively,” she explained.

“It’s going to be a big challenge to get them back to where they were, but we also might have lost a few vulnerable clients.

“They might have joined a gang or got into trouble with the police, or further avoided the school that brought them and gone AWOL.

“For those clients who have had really difficult mental health issues and severe trauma, but have worked so hard during their time with us to get out into the community, it will be really hard to try and get them back out once again.”

Jemma’s love of horses comes from an unlikely place — the London Borough of Barnet, where she was born and raised.

Although not often associated with horses, it was home to the Mill Hill Pony Club, where she was taken by a friend.

“Barnet is a mixed area of wealthy and not-so-wealthy kids, and this was a great leveller,” she said. “It was one of the most inner-London pony clubs and was full of kids from all kinds of different backgrounds — we all got on together with a shared love of horse.

“It made me realise that there are a lot of children living in inner London who have no contact with horses whatsoever.

“With the current climate of kids growing up in front of computer screens, and limited access to outside space, I was even more determined to find somewhere where we could use horses and young people, and find somewhere outside where we could work with horses to think about mental health.”

The charity started life in 2009 renting other farms or riding schools, and using the horses on-site to fulfil the programmes.

The sessions proved popular. It started with just £10,000 and 20 children, and now has more than 300 clients.

Jemma, who is of Russian and Polish descent, said: “Those we were seeing for therapy, were loving the sessions but had nothing to do the rest of the week — so we created an educational programme, an after-school club and a work experience programme, which was needed.”

In terms of her Judaism, Jemma states that she is “Jewish in outlook on life”, and her Jewish identity is about sharing her positive experiences with those who wouldn’t have had the chance.

Jemma didn’t originally want to be a psychologist, because of a preconception she had that they just “sat in a therapy room”.

She said: “I wanted to help people more in a social way, which is where the sociology came from.

“It was at Leeds University, when the internet was born, that I was allowed to do my very first undergraduate thesis on the use of horses in riding for the disabled — they were quite forward-thinking at the university.”

Jemma, who even took her horse to university with her, added: “I kept an eye out on what was happening in the rest of the world.

“The way I practise is called critical psychology, which is about thinking about different ways to support those with mental health difficulties — not just seeing them in therapy rooms and looking at why certain individuals are more likely to suffer from distress than others.

“A lot of members of the Jewish community won’t access a psychologist because of this and other stigmas.

“The course I was on also looked at poverty, discrimination and other aspects to see how they impacted upon people’s mental health.”

Jemma’s charity is now sharing materials on a blog, which features video resources for coping with lockdown using the horses as a way of explaining.

Details: or to support the charity, donate at

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