This week we awarded £800,000 to 20 groups across the UK as part of our Lived Experience Leaders programme. One of the projects that we funded was to Welsh Institute of Therapeutic Horsemanship (WITH), who are using £50,000 of National Lottery money to deliver a programme to support disadvantaged women into leadership positions. We spoke to Lindsey Crosbie, Equestrian Director at WITH from the project to find out more about the background to the project.
“My name is Lindsey Crosbie and I come from a background of multiple, multi-generational disadvantage. I, my mother, my grandmother and my great grandmother have all had direct lived experience of poverty, domestic and sexual abuse and mental health issues. My great grandmother committed suicide because in the 1940s she was unable to access help for her anxiety, a condition that today is fully treatable. My mother and grandmother, though both bright and creative women, worked as a dinner lady and a zero hours contract carer respectively and never achieved their full potential because the disadvantages they suffered, and their resulting poor mental health held them back. I broke the cycle because, with the support of my mother and a teacher who really believed in me, I was able to win a scholarship to private school when I was 11 which gave me access to more choices and a greater variety of opportunities than the women who went before me ever had.
“I was the first woman in my family to ever go to University. I am the first to have a profession rather than just a low-paid job I do to survive. However, the experiences of my early life left me with my own mental health battle and I suffered from anorexia, selective mutism and anxiety. I repeated the patterns of generations before me, seeking out violent, unhealthy and abusive relationships but unlike my great grandmother I eventually found something that saved me: horses. In the inner-city area and the background of poverty that I came from, horses were not something I would have ever normally come across or had the means to access for myself. However, a chance encounter with a horse at a city farm hit me like a lightning bolt. I worked hard to be around horses in any way I could and eventually when I was 27, I rescued a horse named Fabian.
“Horses taught me to be strong and assertive yet kind and compassionate, they gave me courage and they showed me who I really was. In 2011 I founded a charity called WITH that gives people who would never normally have the chance the opportunity to interact with horses. All the horses we have are rescued because we believe that they have a unique affinity with and can give hope to people who have also experienced abuse, violence or neglect. In the past eight years, we have rescued and rehabilitated 24 horses and provided more than 3000 hours of equine-assisted learning and therapeutic riding sessions to disadvantaged people. Our focus is on women who are survivors of violence, abuse or ill mental health, young people who are NEET and children who are not living with their birth family.
“In the past few years, we have delivered two projects that work exclusively with women who share aspects of my background: the Overcoming Obstacles project funded by Comic Relief and the Alpha Mare Course funded by Agenda and MIND. While devising, planning and leading these services, it became clear to me that my own struggles in life were no longer a disadvantage to me but a distinct advantage. My understanding of the women that I work with, many of whom are also dealing with multi-generational disadvantage, makes me a kinder, more compassionate and more capable therapeutic horsemanship practitioner. We want to grow some of these women into leaders who can ‘throw the ladder back down’ and, as their disadvantages turn into advantages, use their challenging life experiences to help other people.
“Every year, a small but significant proportion of the women that I work with express a desire to become therapeutic horsemanship practitioners so that they can use what they have learned to help other people. While we do offer a popular practitioner certification scheme, it is expensive. Most of these women come from deprived areas, are unemployed, have recently left refuge, have access to money restricted by an abusive partner, are single parents who struggle to fund child care or don’t have access to transport. As a result, this training is unattainable to them. Currently, 100% of candidates on the course would describe themselves as middle class and not suffering from any particular disadvantage.
“A major issue in the therapeutic horsemanship industry as a whole is that all too often the backgrounds and life experiences of the practitioners do not reflect those of our clients. Horses are synonymous with privilege, but their life-changing benefits should be for everyone. This type of therapeutic work has grown out of organisations like Riding for the Disabled which are largely staffed by people who can afford to volunteer their time and where disadvantaged staff and volunteers are sorely under-represented. While the field has branched out into mental health treatment, the imbalance remains.
“It is my firm belief that if these services and organisations were run and staffed by people whose experiences more accurately reflect those of their service users, we would see huge change in their efficacy and effectiveness. However, for that change to happen, we must find ways to insert those people into those positions. The women who come through WITH’s services are tough, compassionate, self-aware people who have first-hand experience of clawing their way back from devastating circumstances. They have had their own lives changed by horses. They have all the raw ingredients to become stellar therapeutic horsemanship practitioners who can effect great change in the world.
“The National Lottery money will help to pilot a scholarship program called the Leg Up Program where women from backgrounds of multiple disadvantage can apply to have their training, child care and transport costs funded. With this program they can be given a leg-up into the industry, emerging as highly skilled, highly trained therapeutic horsemanship practitioners who can use their own life experience to change the lives of others.”