Counselling, therapy and drugs haven’t been able to help them, but working with horses has given some traumatised Defence veterans hope and restored their will to live.
That’s the subject of a compelling new documentary filmed on a stunning Kangaroo Valley property being screened in Canberra on 1 November at the Palace Electric cinema.
The Healing began as a short shoot to compile some promotional footage for former NSW Police Senior Constable and horseman Scott Brody’s Horse Aid program, in which veterans can help in his work to rehabilitate former racehorses, themselves traumatised from their experiences in the racing industry.
But filmmaker Nick Barkla found he could not walk away after seeing the transformation in the veterans and the horses after only a few days. He wanted to follow through with the veterans’ stories to find out what would happen over the long term and if it really worked.
“When I met the veterans on day one, they were very introverted. They were very tight and they didn’t socialise really with each other at all,” he recalls.
“I just remember thinking these guys really looked troubled, and honestly, after maybe two or three days of working with Scott and the horses, just the change in their body language was remarkable.
“You could really see their shoulders dropping. You could see some joy returning to them. You could see that they were interacting with each other much more. Their confidence was lifted.
“They were achieving some goals that Scott had set them. These might seem like small things for people doing well in life, but when you’re not going well, those little achievements become huge.
“And I think that’s what stunned me, someone from that background of trauma, getting a horse to be able to follow them around the round yard and then to get the horse to put its foot on the stump just through using body language and energy.”
That was June 2016. It led to three to four years of filming and another year of editing, but then the pandemic hit, delaying the film’s release.
After a year of entering film festivals – winning the Beyond Blue Prize for ‘Best Film about Hope and Resilience’ at the 2022 Veterans Film Festival in Sydney – The Healing is ready for public release and a national tour.
It won’t be its first screening in Canberra, having a showing late last year at Parliament House, where it was introduced by Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh. The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide also requested a screening, and it has now been shown to staff nationwide.
Barkla says it is important to get the film in front of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and politicians so that they can start to see there are other ways to help veterans that don’t currently fall under the funding guidelines.
“That really needs to change,” Barkla says.
“At the moment, Scott can’t get his program and his work funded through DVA because they don’t recognise equine programs for veterans, so the more we can get this film in front of politicians, the better the chances are of that changing.”
Barky says the royal commission needed to know about something that offered hope after hearing horror stories about post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression and the high suicide rate among veterans.
“That’s what this film does,” he says.
Barkly says some of the veterans in the film get to the point where they no longer need medication, something their doctors and counsellors could not achieve, “and Scott isn’t a therapist, he’s a horse guy”.
“He’s teaching them practical horsemanship skills, so he’s not talking to them about their war trauma, being abused in the military, or any of that stuff. He’s talking to them about being OK with this horse, like, ‘This is what I want you to do next time you go in the round’.
“I think that’s a breath of fresh air for a lot of them, to be honest.”
Completing these practical tasks gives them a renewed sense of pride and accomplishment, Barkla says.
“They also know that they’re helping retrain, rehabilitate a horse and giving it a second chance of life in a second career,” he says, “so there are some parallels there between them and the horse that they almost instinctively know, you don’t even have to explain that to them.”
Barkla says many veterans who complete the Horse Aid program find their life so changed that they return to volunteer so they can continue their association with horses.
As well as touring the nation’s capitals, Barkla says he would like to visit the regions where many veterans and horse lovers live.
The Healing will screen at the Palace Electric next Wednesday (1 November) at 7 pm, followed by a Q&A with Barkla, Brodie, veteran Mel Baker and CEO of War Widows Renee Wilson.
Tickets are available at The Healing. For every ticket sold, 50 per cent of profits go to Horse Aid to help support the rehabilitation of horses and veterans.
It will also screen in Bowral on Sunday, 26 November, at the Empire Cinema at 4:30 pm.
Following the national tour, The Healing will also be available to rent or buy online.