The Alpha Mare Course
Are you recovering from trauma, loss or abuse? Do you live with a mental health issue that leaves you feeling isolated? Would you like to reconnect with yourself, discover your own inner strength and gain support from a group of like-minded women? What if you could do all of that while spending the weekend in a beautiful place, spending time interacting on the ground with a herd of horses, finding out what they have to teach us about assertiveness and strong, connected relationships. The Alpha Mare Course won a Marsh Christian Award for innovative peer supported in 2019. Piloted with funding from Mind, the leading mental health charity in England and Wales, and Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk. As a women’s mental health peer support programme, it helped more than 40 women experiencing disadvantage who were frequently under-represented in services to improve their mental health. It is now available to anyone wishing to make meaningful connections with other women and share life experiences.
What is Peer Support?
Peer support differs from other forms of mental health services in important ways. It happens when people who have similar experiences of something difficult come together to support each other. It is through this development of meaningful, two-way relationships that peer support works. Crucially, the people involved play an active role in creating a safe environment for each other. Peer support can improve your emotional health, well-being and sense of belonging. A vital part of peer support is mutual respect; peer support aims to help both those giving and receiving support. Everyone's experiences are treated as equally important, so you might find this gives you a different experience to more traditional support options. Talking to people who have been through similar challenges may:
· help you to talk about what you are feeling and experiencing
· help you share suggestions for coping techniques and support options
· introduce you to ideas and approaches that have been helpful to others
· reassure you that you're not the only person who has felt like this
· increase your self-esteem and confidence over time help you see how common mental health problems are, and that everyone experiencing them deserves support
· provide a sense of belonging to a community of people with similar experiences
· give you a safety net to turn to at difficult times or if you’re at risk of crisis
· help you to find support that's right for you
· help you feel more empowered about your own wellbeing, if you feel disillusioned with the support you've received so far
How Can Horses Help?
The Alpha Mare Project is a peer support project with a unique selling point: horses. We know that women in particular have a special affinity with them. As prey animals, horses are powerful yet vulnerable. Like the lead mare in the horse herd, women are nurturers. They are programmed by society to take care of others and are prone to make personal sacrifices. Due to putting their own needs last, they don't always access help for mental health. The Alpha Mare in a herd can also be an assertive leader and fierce protector who has strong and connected relationships with the others in her herd. The Alpha Mare Course enables women experiencing mental health issues to set boundaries, make healthy choices, build self-esteem and cope with change. As women join together to take part in a meaningful activity and bond over a shared interest, they gain the confidence and communication skills to talk about their mental health, form a supportive 'herd' and discover their inner Alpha Mare.
What do the sessions involve?
Groups will spend part of their time helping to train and care for rescued horses. Each session will have a theme and an activity designed to spark discussion. Themes will include: self care, setting boundaries, relaxation or problem-solving and the equine activity will underline and consolidate the theme. For example, when focusing on self-care, we will groom, feed and provide enriching experiences for horses, then share ideas about self-care, how it can improve mental health and what the challenges are in regularly making time and space to care for ourselves. We also put together self-care boxes women can take away to practice at home.
Who Will Run the Sessions?
We believe that everyone has what they need inside themselves. Rather than being led by an instructor, adviser or counsellor, the sessions will focus around the women and their own ideas, solutions, issues and triumphs. Women come up with their own solutions and support one another. They are in the driving seat and the facilitators simply ask pertinent questions to help them process the learning experience. The staff and peer mentors all have lived experience of mental health issues and can draw on their own experiences to support participants.
Our staff are trained Equine Assisted Learning professionals and their role is to create a non-judgemental learning and discussion environment. They do not offer advice, therapy or counselling. We aim that women will play an active part in leading the work. As participants become more confident, more assertive and more able to manage their own mental health, we anticipate that they will step up into peer mentor roles. They will be able to access training that certifies them as Assistant Equine Assistant Learning practitioners and help to deliver the equine aspect of the session. Through this, they will also gain facilitation and group management skills which enable them to lead or co-facilitate discussion, helping other women to process their experiences out loud, share solutions and air frustrations in a safe and constructive way.
Will I be Safe?
The staff are specially trained to ensure that participants are physically safe at all times. All of our horses have to pass a temperament assessment before they are allowed to work with clients. We have a range of up to date safety equipment and the centre where sessions take place is small and quiet. Only the group and the facilitators will have access at the time of the sessions and no one can enter the site without permission. Every session starts with a group confidentiality agreement where the women agree to keep one another physically and emotionally safe during their time together.
Who Can take Part?
We work with women and girls aged eighteen and above who have a wide variety of disadvantages and life experiences but we can work with younger teens on a case by case basis. You can come with a group of friends or female relatives or we can match you with a group. What each person will have in common is that their mental health is currently preventing them from living their lives to their fullest potential. Challenges might include: surviving violence, abuse and coercion, mild to moderate mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, eating disorders and postnatal mental health issues.
Currently experiencing mental health difficulties. Formal diagnosis not necessary.