Amado Animal Assisted Therapist
M’Lani Basson teaches disabled children how to ride horses as part of the therapeutic program at the AMADO Animal Assisted Therapy Riding Centre which she started on her parents farm in 2008 following her dream to give children with severe disabilities the opportunity to grow – physically, mentally and emotionally – through their interaction with horses.
‘I’ve been riding since I was 3 years old, not competitively, but simply for the exhilarating sense of freedom that riding and being in the moment gives me’.
Horse riding is something that I have always done with my Mom, and I am lucky enough to have been surrounded by horses my whole life. After studying Art and Psychology at Stellenbosch University, in her final year M’Lani still had no idea what she wanted to do. Thinking about the idea of art therapy, she realised that it would be too expensive to set up in South Africa and decided to take a break and travel to Germany as an exchange student. Yet while in the queue to make the arrangements, she overheard the two German girls in front of her discussing animal assistant therapy.
The idea resonated so deeply that she stepped out of the line, bought a one way ticket to England and announced to her parents that she would be leaving within two weeks. M’Lani went on to spend 1,5 years in Scotland living on a Palace Estate looking after 200 horses, working at a Riding for the Disabled free charity on the adjoining property every chance she got.
‘That’s what we do at AMADO, we work for free and love the people that we work with. After 11 years of changing lives through the power of animal assisted therapy, I will never look back.’
With this experience behind her she moved home, and began to physically lay the bricks and foundation to her new home next to her parents place on the scenic slopes of Paarl Mountain. Everything that exists there today M’Lani has created with her ‘own two calloused hands’.
AMADO means ‘beloved’ in Spanish and was the name of the first foal her grandmother, who’s now 93 years, gifted her. The facility is named Amado as an ode to her and to the philosophy of love shared with everybody who comes through the doors.
Why horses? ‘Horses are the ideal match for this work for two primary reasons – the physical element, and the emotional side. On the physical and practical side, horses have the closest three dimensional gait to a human walk, so the core gets activated, as can be attested to by anybody who has ridden a horse for more than an hour.’
The horse riding enables children with cerebral palsy or in a wheel chair to move parts of their body that they haven’t moved before in a non-strenuous workout, as the horse carries the load. M’Lani shares the story of a blind boy who rode for the first time and said he had never felt freer. He never had to worry about bumping into anything, but rather could simply enjoy the movement and the wind in his hair. ‘He rode for an hour and when he got off had the biggest smile on his face.’ He was 15 years old the first time he rode and now returns each week, always leaving mesmerised by the time he spends on the horses.
‘On the emotional side, here you have this big 450 kg animal who just doesn’t judge, but simply accepts you, like a big teddy bear. It doesn’t matter your race, gender, limbs, no limbs, small or heavy. He just accepts you for you and wants to be a part of the healing process – and that is why I use horses.’
There are many success stories at Amado. Every day is a miracle day. ‘There is nothing more important than treating these children like any other child. If you treat a child like you would a bird with a broken wing, he will never be able to fly’ and that is what AMADO is all about. ‘Don’t put children in glass cases, or wrap them in cotton wool. I say – sit by yourself – and they do and it’s amazing. It’s this belief that I bestow in the children, the time and unconditional love that allows for their personal miracle to occur’.
‘We had seven children in wheel chairs when we started, only one still uses their wheel chair as a result of muscular dystrophy. Our success with cerebral palsy, relaxation of the muscles and the little bodies becoming more subtle with stretching has also meant an increase in self-confidence.’
Horseback-riding offers a new visual perspective of the world, it encourages independence and the control. Most of the beneficiaries in the AMADO program do not have the opportunity or are not able to participate in traditional recreational and sports activities. Riding and being around horses offers a chance to be successful at a unique activity that others in their community can only dream of. This ‘I can’ approach soon governs all aspects of their daily lives.
All of the horses are voice activated. That means that if M’Lani whistles or makes a subtle movement they will stop. This is part of the process that teaches the child that they are in charge, even when M’Lani may still be, and empowers them on their road to healing. The significance of saying stop – and the horse stops – especially for victims of abuse, is powerful.
Amado sees about 40 children that come from different organisations within the district. They do not work with individuals but rather with referring organisations who provide the background, profile, indemnities and funding to properly treat the child. This helps M’Lani understand the needs of the child and why they are in therapy.
The three horses at Amado are much loved and nurtured with shiny coats and rippling muscles. Of course, being able to cuddle up and care for them is therapy for the heart too and on a visit you are likely to get a slobbery kiss for just showing up. Bon, the black Friesian mare is the 24 years old grandma and softness personified. She lifts her legs and back to correct the balance of the child and won’t take a step unless she is confident the child is safe by her standards.
Rain loves the teenagers as they are a little intimidated by him. As soon as he sees a bad attitude he amps up his and there is a bit of a power struggle. Working with teenagers and keeping them out of gangs and trouble is an important part of the work here, and only when Rain sees an improvement in their attitude does he soften and let them ride him. George is the 3 year old baby, and at 850 kg large enough for all children to brush and groom him at the same time – and he loves massages. ‘He thinks he’s a dog and has been known to steal handbags and walk around with them if given half the chance.’
M’Lani has been on the same property for the past 32 years, her parents live there and this is where she is raising her sons with her husband. Every day she opens her home to strangers and people less fortunate than they are and her children play where she once did as a child. This is a priceless gift to her boys.
‘I will never leave, I believe in this country, the Cape Winelands is in my blood, South Africa is. I believe that if we all do good things in our own environments, a huge difference can be made.’
‘The most difficult thing about running AMADO is that it is so beautiful. As a non-profit that manages to maintain itself, what they really need is feed for these horses and they are always looking for financial support to keep the facility going. They never want to stop the work that they do, or the impact that they are making in the lives of the children that they work with.
A visit to M’Lani and AMADO can be arranged and will sponsors a child for a year, making a difference in the life of that individual, and allowing M’Lani to keep following her dream.