by MICHELE STERNBERG

What begins for some kids as the chance to have a day off school quickly becomes a transformative experience that changes their life forever.

That’s the power of horse-facilitated learning, says Leading the Way International founder Alane Millions (aka AJ), who works with Sunshine Coast school students to build respect and confidence, and give them the skills to take control of their emotions and their future.

While some call it equine therapy, AJ prefers to steer clear of the term because her programs teach essential life skills and provide support to expand a person’s quality of life.

“We want to stop putting tiny Band-Aids on gaping wounds of children, give them a safe place to grow and learn how to stop dysfunctional cycles and create positive futures,” AJ says.

“We develop emotional intelligence, personal awareness and relationship skills through participants learning directly from horses.”

She says the classes balance theory sessions with authentic, real-life practice that involve grooming and handling.

“Horses don’t judge. They are very honest creatures … and they see us for who we really are,” she says.

“For children with trauma involving human relationships, opening up to another human immediately presents challenges and road blocks. Partner them with a horse and you can see the progress very quickly.”

Serifina was one such student who begrudgingly went along to get a day off school.

“When I was first invited to the equine therapy I was sceptical,” she says.

“I had spent years in and out of therapies, none of it had worked, so how could some mumbo jumbo horse therapy help?  

“But it really, really did. I agreed to go even though I was sceptical because I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to take a day off school.  

“The first visit was really nice, everyone was lovely, positive, and the property was beautiful, but I still held on to my whole negative, sceptical mindset. It wasn’t until the third visit that I really let go of that and starting taking things on board. Once this happened, I really started to learn.”

Serifina says she came to realise that she was responsible for how she felt and learnt how to control her feelings.

“I learnt about how to put up boundaries and let people in or push them away if I need to, I learnt about my brain and why it works in the way it does and how to change the way it works if it’s not doing what I want it to,” she says.

“I now have a better relationship with my family, friends and myself.”

The school-based programs are designed to build respect and confidence, teach controlling emotions, understanding aggression and bullying, learning resilience, applying problem solving, acquiring verbal and non-verbal communication skills, exploring neuro-biology and wielding power appropriately.

AJ says that one of the first things she teaches participants is to step back and breathe.

“It’s important to understand that by stepping back and taking a big, deep breath, it shows the horses that we mean them no harm and it gives them the time to feel comfortable having us near them,” she says.

“Horses are very sensitive to how we are feeling and can pick up on our emotions like anger, sadness and frustration. They can also sense a lack of confidence.

“So often the students will come in and pick one of the horses that they like and want to work with, but the horses have other ideas.

“I like to let the horses choose who they want to be partnered with for each course and it’s sometimes surprising which student they choose.”

Canadian-born AJ has a Diploma in Community Services and learnt early on to put her trust in her horses.

“I grew up on a ranch in Canada with my grandfather, who was a horse trainer, but he only taught me how I didn’t want to train horses,” she says. “When I started training my own horse as a teenager, I decided to do everything the opposite way to my grandfather. I didn’t want to be cruel or forceful; I wanted to work with the horse.”

AJ established Leading the Way International at Belli Park in 2012 and has been supporting schools and at-risk youth on the Sunshine Coast ever since. 

For a woman who had what she describes as “a less than ideal childhood”, it’s her way of sharing her knowledge with others.

She’s surrounded herself with 12 acres of calm and her herd of facilitators grazing lazily in the paddock when they’re off-duty – lead mare Fly, lead stallion Holmes, stallions Slash, Baloo and Chico, mare NeeGee and geldings Tahi, Maverick, Flynn and Roo. 

In addition, she has a team of qualified helpers, including Amy Wilson, Claire Meraki, Courtney Brown, Piper Grant and Korin Kilgore.

And it’s not just students that AJ’s horse-facilitated learning programs are tailored to help. She also runs programs for community groups, corporate entities, veterans and families to tackle a range of issues from leadership and motivation through to healing past traumas.