Harnessing Horses for Healing: Maxime Willems’ Therapeutic Approach

In this conversation, Maxime Willems, the founder of MW Therapy and Training and equine wellness therapist at Sugar Beach Ranch, shares her journey from competitive dressage in Europe to equine therapy. Maxime talks about the personal challenges that led her away from competitive riding and back to horses in a more meaningful way.

She details how equine therapy helps build self-awareness and discusses her own path to becoming an Equine Wellness Practitioner. Her insights into the field are down-to-earth and practical, aimed at helping others understand how interacting with horses can support mental health.

Maxime also offers some straightforward advice for those new to equine therapy, making it clear that this approach is accessible to anyone looking to explore its benefits. Her story is about reconnecting with her passion in a way that not only helped her but now helps others.

Maxime, could you share a bit about your early experiences with dressage in Europe and what prompted you to step away from competitive riding?

I have an older brother and sister who were in competitive riding, especially dressage but also showjumping. The trainer who ran the dressage riding school was an Olympic dressage rider and had two daughters that were younger than me. They had some really well-bred horses and I started having about three private lessons a week with their young horses. Often these horses were being trained up for the trainer’s daughters later on. 

I would try to earn money in every possible way (for example by washing cars) so I’d be able to have an extra lesson that week. Eventually, I found a pony in town that I was able to treat as my own for a little while. His name was Tornado. As we did not have a horse trailer, I had to walk him through town so I would have access to an arena and coaches. Eventually, my mom bought me my very own horse.

He was a 5yr old gelding, trained in dressage, but it turned out he was a very well-bred showjumping horse. That’s where my journey in showjumping started. A bit later in my journey, after leaving Belgium, and after 12 months of intensively practising yoga and meditation, I got in contact with Classical Dressage, which opened up access to an entire different world for me. 

Returning to horses later in life seems to have been a pivotal moment for you. How did this reconnection help shape your approach to mental wellness?

I left the horse training and riding industry at a time when I was struggling a lot myself, in a mentally, but also emotionally and physically way. I was in my early twenties and was struggling with intense anxiety, which resulted in quite extreme sleeping difficulties and an eating disorder. 

As soon as I finished my university studies, I decided to leave Belgium. I discovered yoga and meditation and practised that quite intensely for about 12 months before moving to Australia. During these 12 months, I had felt an intense desire to connect with horses again.

I felt alive and energetic again, but at the same time I could also sense a fear of going back to the horse industry. Not knowing where to start, worried about being unsupported, worried about not knowing how to connect with myself and horses, worried about not being good enough, etc. 

I tried working for a variety of trainers in Australia and eventually it was a lady of German origin who was breeding Andalusian and Lusitano horses who told me to get a job with my university degree and then buy my own horses and do whatever I wanted.

That’s how I ended up working as an NDIS Behaviour Support Practitioner, and many of my participants had an NDIS budget for Equine Assisted Therapy. That’s how I ended up doing my own training, buying my own horses in Australia, and meeting Stevey Arena from Sugar Beach Ranch, where I now do equine wellbeing sessions for guests and corporates. 

Equine therapy is known for its profound impact on mental health. Can you explain how daily interactions with horses help foster self-awareness and being present in the moment?

Horses are a very aware and social herd animal. I feel that in a way, as humans, we are an aware and social animal, but maybe through conditioning and habits developed in unawareness, we have lost connection with the present moment, our intuition/gut feeling, and our connection with ourselves, others and the world around us. For me, horses can now help me to stay present, and remind me of my innate humane awareness, sensitivity, connection and intuition. 

What inspired you to formally study equine therapy, and how has this education influenced your current practices?

After practising yoga and meditation intensely for 12 months, it has become a lifestyle. I feel that I have changed as a human being when it comes to self-awareness, a more calm and stable nervous system and a trust and warmth in connection with others and the world around me. I felt energised again and felt drawn to being with and working with horses again. 

After living in a caravan for about 12 months, to learn from a German lady who was breeding and training Andalusians and Lusitanos in central Queensland, I decided to get back into the yoga world and study for a Certificate IV in Yoga Teaching at Byron Yoga Centre. I also participated in two Yoga Therapy training sessions and became interested in working in the mental health industry.

When I was in Europe, I always wanted to study Psychology, but as we were limited in regard to the cities where we could study Psychology at that time, that never happened. Through Byron Yoga Centre I made a connection with someone who offered me a job as an NDIS Behaviour Support Practitioner.

That’s how I got into contact with some clients who were participating in Equine Therapy on a regular basis. After doing some research I got enrolled in my own training, and that got the ball rolling when it comes to continuing my education. 

Could you offer some insight into how someone new to equine therapy might start to experience its benefits? What should they expect during their first session?

The first thing that comes to mind when reading this question is that a lot depends on the intention and the level of engagement you bring to the session. 

My main role as a facilitator is to be present and to support you to increase your own awareness around what challenges or triggers you. Around your personal boundaries, physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, and needs.

So eventually you can learn to make your own choices and decisions in a way that feels right and safe to you. I feel that it is not my role to tell participants what to change in their lives, how to approach the horses, and which decisions to make with the horses. I feel that my role is to be extremely present, to actively listen, to observe the participants body language and words, so I can reflect this back to the participant and help him/her to create meaning of this in a way that is helpful. 

A second thing that comes up when reading this question is that I don’t think they “ should” do/expect/feel/experience anything in particular. A lot of it depends on why the participant comes in the first place.

People come for a variety of reasons, whether it is for safely exploring trauma, feelings of anxiety, depression, loss and grief, or relationship problems. Maybe a first experience could be arriving in a new unfamiliar place, being outside in nature, meeting with a new person and large animals that they feel unfamiliar with.

A second experience could be exploring how they actually arrive and which thoughts and body sensations come with that. This could include observing the horses and having a best guess about how the horses are showing up and feeling today, and how they are relating with the environment around them and their herd members today.

Some participants feel the intense need to share their story, while for other people sharing this story happens gradually. I feel that the more that I am trying to answer this question, the response that comes to mind is … having some more self-awareness. Around how they arrive, connect with a new environment and non-judgemental others like horses, and what needs they have for their Equine Therapy session. Whether it is finding a calm, expressing emotions in a safe way, connecting with others in a non-violent and non-judgemental way, etc. 

With your deep understanding of equine wellness, what are a few simple activities or practices involving horses that anyone could incorporate to help reduce stress?

When reading this question, what comes to mind is that many of us might feel that we have to / should do, have to / should experience, have to / should achieve something when we are with or around horses. There is this saying that says “the more you try to change, the more you stay the same”.

I feel that there is truth in that for me. Often we come from a busy day that involves lots of talking, doing, trying, achieving, worrying, … and then we arrive at the horses and feel that we have to be calm, we have to be efficient, we have to be able to achieve and feel connection. What would it be like to invite yourself and the horses into sharing a herd experience together.

Can you invite yourself to feel what it could be like for you right now to be a part of this herd for the next 10 minutes. Whatever that looks like for you and the horses. Maybe you are sitting, maybe you are standing. Maybe you are close to one particular horse, maybe you are further away from the herd. 

Another invitation could be to simply observe the horses and yourself. Observing their interaction with the outer environment and each other, with you. Observing how they express their personal boundaries, and how you express your personal boundaries when they walk up to you, or walk away from you. 

Looking forward, why do you think equine wellness will be trending this year, and could you share five tips for those interested in exploring this therapeutic approach?

I feel that Equine Wellness will definitely be trending this year. Many people try to find “another way” to connect with themselves, support themselves, heal themselves, and now try to approach their wellbeing and wellness differently.

In connecting with people I can sense a need to be in nature, reconnect with our intuition, increase our awareness and empower ourselves to take responsibility for our own wellbeing choices.

For many people, experiencing therapy, rather than talking about it. Being out in nature rather than sitting in between four walls. This seems to support people when it comes to increasing their self-awareness and reconnecting with their own inner teacher. I can definitely speak for myself when I say that for a long time I somehow was seeking an external teacher. Someone to tell me how to live my life in a meaningful and “right” way, someone to tell me which choices to make and what to avoid.

For me yoga and Equine Therapy have helped me to connect with my own inner teacher so to say, by increasing my self-awareness, by connecting with my intuition and what feels safe and right to me, so I can make my own decisions in life, and make conscious decisions that can help me to lead a life that feels meaningful to me and as a result to the people that I connect with in an authentic way.

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Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.