Growing up riding horses on a farm out the back of Warrnambool has seen Beck Gurrie build an unlikely career for herself in Freshwater Creek.
The personal trainer and former chef experienced an epiphany born out of frustration about seven years ago when she was coordinating sessions for people with special needs on 100 acres in Lara.
Beck recalls seeing children actively seek reasons and excuses to stop training.
The property – which housed many of her horses and other farm animals – achieved little in motivating children to get active.
“I always thought the horses had been my hobby and not work as such,” she says.
“But when they’d (the children) come out with all their avoidance strategies of, ‘can I just pat the horse?’, ‘oh look there’s a dog’, it’d just be so frustrating for me as a personal trainer trying to accommodate them knowing that it was just their behaviour – it wasn’t their disability, it was a learned pattern for getting out of stuff that worked elsewhere.
“Out of frustration one day I said to one of the kids, ‘if you want to ride, you have to be able to do 20 squats and 20 sit-ups first’”.
From there, the idea came to fruition. Using her knowledge of sport psychology which she developed at the Victorian Fitness Academy, Beck began incorporating horse riding and other farm activities into her clients’ exercise regimes.
Beck says although she had heard of animal-assisted therapy (AAT), she wasn’t sure what the treatment entailed.
In layman’s terms, AAT is an alternative therapeutic measure that incorporates animals into the treatment plan to improve social, emotional and cognitive functioning.
Animal-assisted therapy is used by adults and children living with a disability, mental illness, autism spectrum disorder or chronic illness.
“It just started happening – the first referrals were personal training clients, but then more and more people were saying ‘are you the place that does the horse riding for exercise?’ and it just sort of went that way,” remembers Beck.
“It all just grew around me.”
Dubbed Roaming Ranch, Beck’s animal-therapy centre relocated from St Leonards to Freshwater Creek in 2012.
Enjoying great success and progress, Roaming Ranch – which is a registered provider under the National Disability Insurance Scheme – will soon expand to Colac and Lovely Banks to allow more people to access its services.
Attracting 50 clients a week to its Bogans Lane site in Freshwater Creek, Beck says the program helps kids to problem solve, work in a team, build confidence and improve their fitness skills.
“It’s been so rewarding to watch the kids progress. I’ve learned not to judge now. It doesn’t really matter who walks in the gate, we just give them the opportunity to see what the other kids are doing and what they take to,” she says.
“I can’t think of any disabilities we don’t have – there’s such a range of people that come, even people with quite severe physical handicaps. We’re surprised in the outcomes.”
Beck says there are currently 20 horses on site as well as goats, chickens, cats, rabbits and dogs which are taken care of by her team of 15 staff.
Most staff members have a background in childcare, disability, social work, psychology or community development.
“We all have to work together as a team. It’s really hard to find disability workers with horse experience so it’s just one of those balances and we’re all learning as we go,” she says.
The program at Roaming Ranch is focussed on capacity building. Each client is measured against a progress chart which is rewarded with tokens, a similar concept to moving up a level in karate.
Roaming Ranch’s July school holiday program features cowboy racing, bakehouse sessions, horse riding, whip cracking and more. Adults and children of all abilities are encouraged to attend.
For more information, visit roamingranch.webs.com or phone Beck on 0438 511 293.