In the tranquil Clare countryside, Niamh and Máire are providing an innovative approach to personal development and mental health support, with the help of some unlikely partners – horses.

Combining Niamh Harney’s expertise as an equine professional with Máire Kennedy’s background in mental health, their collaborative efforts are yielding profound transformations for individuals and groups alike.

Equine Centred Services is a Social Enterprise, which is a business whose objective is to achieve a social, societal or environmental impact, rather that maximising profits. They work with a lot of teenagers as well as children and adults, and they also provide sessions for groups like staff teams, community groups and mental health services.

Central to their method is the concept of “experiential learning.” As Máire explains, “It’s not talk therapy; it’s experiential. We learn about ourselves through the experience of interacting with the horses.” There is no riding involved – clients are on the ground in a large arena with Niamh, Máire and the horses. The arena acts as the story board, and the client steps in and becomes part of it. The horses might become characters; like ‘dad’, or ‘fear’, or maybe ‘the calm one.’ “The client sees what the client sees,” says Máire. “It’s amazing what they see.”

Niamh adds, “We believe that the client has the solutions. We don’t have anyone else’s solutions. We help them find their own solutions.”

The presence of horses, with their innate ability to remain present in the moment, serves as a catalyst for self-discovery and mindfulness. “Change can happen so fast,” observes Máire. Clients often find themselves experiencing profound insights without the need for verbal communication. “People really experience themselves in their body,” says Niamh. “As they calm, the horses calm. The actual experience of what’s going on, that’s what brings change.”

“It can be easy for us as humans to be fixated on our stories,” Máire adds, “of what has happened, what was happening or what might happen. But here, we are focused on the present moment, what is actually happening right now. Clients come out of the arena knowing, ‘This is what I’m really feeling. This is what is really going on for me.’ And if you come to that – that realization and acceptance – that’s when you can start to change.”

Niamh started Equine Centred Services herself in 2016, and says that she received crucial support along the way from Clare Local Development Company (CLDC) in navigating the challenges of starting a social enterprise.

Niamh wants to encourage anyone with a passion project to understand how important it is to seek support early on. “This business was from my heart,” she said. “I thought it would all be easy because I loved the work. But there’s times where you’re stuck, filling out forms or doing accounts or giving a presentation or those things that aren’t your strong points, and you can’t move forward. If I hadn’t had someone to reach out to for a bit of support when I hit those blocks, this business never would have happened.”

In addition to training programmes and support networks, Niamh also got one-to-one mentoring. “You can’t measure the importance of these things. If I could give one piece of advice, I would say: Reach out for support sooner! I never even knew I needed the support, and now I wish I had reached out sooner.”

Clare Local Development Company is a community organization that supports individuals and communities to overcome obstacles and build resilience in their own lives and communities. They operate a Social Enterprise Network which supports people like Niamh to contribute to a better world. As Niamh’s own Equine Centred Services continues to touch lives and inspire change, it stands as a testament to the power of social enterprises in Clare in creating a brighter, more compassionate future for all.