Facing the Challenges

“People ask me, how can you do it? How do you work with children who suffered such trauma or who are disabled? Doesn’t it break your heart? But I say, how can I not do it?” M’Lani Basson has an absolute passion for the 40 children with special needs who visit her and the horses on their farm against the slopes of Paarl Mountain once a week at different times. “They come for sunshine and a few hours where they can be carefree. Where they can just be a child again. And that’s what I want to give them. Most of these children are either abused or abandoned, and many of them are disabled in some way or another. Some have to assume responsibilities of a household and take care of younger siblings. Here on the farm, they get the chance to be carefree and to laugh all they want.”

We Shall Overcome

As an art and psychology student, M’Lani had her heart set on specialising in art therapy, but having grown up with horses, the minute she heard of equine-assisted therapy, she realised that that was exactly what she wanted to do. After university, she volunteered at an animal-assisted therapy centre in Scotland and started Amado (beloved in Spanish) when she returned to South Africa after an eight-month solo stint backpacking through South America.

“We work with three horses, and they each have a specific role and function. Rain, our trusty Appaloosa, is as moody as any teenager. So, when the rebellious teenagers walk in here with their baggy pants and no care attitudes, he just flashes them his teeth and twitches his ears at them, and they melt like butter. They try hard to please him and make friends with him because they feel understood and they’re impressed by this giant spotted horse. Bon is the gentle Friesian granny who the toddlers adore. She has a caring and nurturing touch – something many of the little ones crave. And then there’s George, the enormous 800kg Percheron who will obey your every command and make you feel 100% in control, even if you can’t control anything or anyone else in your life.”

The children look forward to their time at this haven with its granite outcrops and wild olive groves against the slopes of Paarl mountain. “This tranquillity is something the children also comment on. They can’t believe how quiet it is here. It’s an escape from the everyday noises they have to endure; all the madness and chaos of life in the disadvantaged communities they live in.”

Once on the farm, the children have to catch the horses and brush them out before they can ride them. “It’s amazing to see how their stiff muscles loosen up when they use both hands to brush the horse. Even children with Cerebral Palsy, Hemiplegia and children in wheelchairs. I stretch them out over the horse without a saddle to allow the warmth and movement of the animal to stimulate muscle memory and relax the contracted muscles. We truly see miracles every day.”

M’Lani explains that the children benefit from horses on two levels. “Firstly, the physical level, as mentioned above, where muscles loosen up and the horse’s gait encourages muscle memory. We’ve had children who were confined to wheelchairs move on to crutches and eventually drop the crutches as well!”

“Secondly, there is healing on an emotional level where horses accept you just the way you are and listen to you, even if you whisper a command. Horses don’t judge you or reject you or even notice your scars and broken body. They are just there for you unconditionally. When the children get to look after the horses, brush them or feed them, they feel useful, important and trusted and that is unbelievably good for their self-confidence and general well-being.”

At the End of the Day

M’Lani is busy with her final qualification to become a Neuro Feedback practitioner. “I want to identify and help those children with learning difficulties, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety and trauma.” “Our two-woman-team is small but effective. My right hand, Estelle Josephs started with me ten years ago and I couldn’t imagine doing this without her. We are like a married couple who finish each other’s sentences,” she laughs. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of Amado operating as a non-profit organisation. “This is no small feat, and we are extremely grateful to all our donors for making it possible.”