As firefighters and victims struggle with the impact of catastrophic fires, a qualified Indigenous counsellor says therapy with horses can help first responders and accident victims overcome a range of traumas. Published in SBS

Ara Champ is lucky to be alive. Formerly a competitive equestrian, the horsewoman from Adelaide once dreamed of representing Australia at an Olympic Games.

Now, even pulling on her horse-riding boots is enough to bring a wave of anxiety.

Ara was working with a new, young dressage horse in 2016, when her dreams of competing internationally were crushed.

Now 24, Ara recalls the life-threatening accident that changed her life several years ago while riding a her horse, Chokkie.

Ara Champ and her new, young dressage horse Chokkie.

“He went around a corner and bucked me into a fence,” she told SBS Small Business Secrets.

“The top part of [my] arm hit the top rail of the fence and popped out of the socket and dislocated backwards.

“Chokkie then turned and galloped straight for me. I had to drag myself out of the arena with my good hand, or he would have trampled me.”

Multiple surgeries followed as doctors struggled to stabilise her arm, and then two years of rehabilitation. While Ara’s body slowly healed, the emotional scars remained.

“I struggled with anxiety and depression before the accident and that was one main reason I got into horses,” Ara said.

“I’ve always wanted to compete. Through school, I was into dressage, show-jumping and cross-country events,” Ara explained.

“In 2013, I got to the highest point where I represented South Australia in Interschool Nationals and was the captain of the team.”

“That was the thing I loved most in life. And now being terrified to go near a horse is the hardest thing I’ve had to do.

“I felt very defeated. [The accident] changed my idea of horses, now I can’t trust these animals.”

A chance meeting led Ara to Warida Wholistic Wellness, founded by Badimaya woman Bianca Stawiarski. Warida is dedicated to helping people like Ara deal with their demons.

Bianca Stawiarski runs an equine assisted therapy business.

“When I first started with Bianca I couldn’t walk up to Dozer without having to stop and it’ d be half an hour until I got to the horse”, says Ara.

Standing together in a paddock at Bianca’s property north-east of Adelaide, Ara uses breathing techniques to remain calm while Bianca holds the reins of a solid chestnut horse named Dozer.

“Ara is very lucky lady that she is still here in the first place,” Bianca Stawiarski said.

“And [it’s amazing] that she’s even giving riding another go, where a lot of people would have stopped.”

To work through her traumatic experience, Ara is encouraged to take small steps towards the horse, in her own time.

Warida is an Indigenous business based in regional South Australia. Warida offers Nguud Mabarn – equine assisted psychotherapy.

“Warida means wedge-tailed eagle and that is my family totem,” Ms Stawiarski told SBS Small Business Secrets.

“Warida looks at well-being from up above, to see the big picture.

“It’s not just physical and nutritional and mental health, it’s how it all fits together.”

“I balance Western qualifications with the Indigenous spiritual side,” Bianca said.

“I look at [a client’s] whole life, not just what they are saying but the energy that they are giving off, and the body language they are expressing.

“That’s the holistic side.”

In recent years, equine assisted therapies have grown in popularity by helping people, including first responders and accident victims, deal with trauma.

Bianca says this form of therapy helps restore confidence in clients like Ara.

“I am now the most confident I have ever been I can walk into social situations now and feel empowered because I have tackled a big mountain with Bianca’s help,” Ara explained.

Bianca’s business is growing steadily through word of mouth referrals, bolstered by recent mentoring from Indigenous Business Australia (IBA).

“We had to completely pull the business apart and look at marketing strategies and market analysis and all those things and I probably didn’t spend enough time on like my web site design,” Bianca said.

“Now I have everything on one site, so people find it easier to book.”

IBA program manager, Natalie Fishlock is a big part of Warida’s growth.

“I have known Bianca for more than four years now, since she came to me with the start of her business idea. And over her journey I’ve helped to support Warida, and find new business pathways,” Ms Fishlock said.

Bianca is among 1600 women on IBA’s Strong Women Strong Business platform.

“Forty per cent of those women are in remote and regional centres and many feel isolated,” Ms Fishlock said.

“So, IBA supports those women by with a platform to bring them together in different forums to work through those challenges.”

Like many Indigenous female-founders, Bianca Stawiarski started small.

“I was just doing this voluntarily to help people,” she said.

“But professionals were telling me I needed to do this as a business. So I decided to go down this path, and I started by doing a huge amount of study,” says Bianca.

“It’s all part of me wanting to change the community, one person at a time.”

“Bianca now uses social media to promote her business,” Natalie Fishlock explained.

“[She also] supports and encourages other women in business, and is an amazing advocate.”

Towards the end of her therapy session, Ara has finally overcome her fear and mounts Dozer in the yard. It’s the first time she’s ridden a horse outside since the accident in 2016.

Ara back in the saddle for the first time since her accident.

“You did it, well done,” Bianca calls out with obvious pride.

Ara hopes one day to compete in dressage again, and continue what she has trained so hard for.

“[Bianca] taught me that not all horses are going to try and kill me.”

“There’s nothing I can ever say that’ll thank her enough, she has changed my life! I love my life now and who I am,” Ara said.

“She is one of the warmest, most genuine people I’ve ever met.

“She’s one of a kind, yeah”

By Sandra Fulloon, Sarah Dowling and Jennifer Scherer.
Published in SBS
8 January 2020