Back on track with horse help
GEOFF Dunning is a relaxed jovial witty man, maybe with a slightly guarded air but quite obviously at peace with himself and his world.
He wasn't always like that.
Geoff is 67 and his background tells a story too familiar to many nowadays as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) gradually reveals its terrors to society.
Raised in the Adelaide Hills and now living in Raceview, Geoff joined the Army at 17, served for 22 years, then got out in 1986.
He did service in Vietnam, New Guinea, a three-month exchange in Canada and every Australian state.
Geoff joined the ambulance service when he got out of the Army and stayed there for 20-odd years.
He worked his way up from on-road officer in the Beenleigh, Logan, Woodridge area to operations manager on the Gold Coast before doing the same job in a huge area of western Queensland.
After a few years at Warwick, he was forced to retire from the ambulance service on medical grounds.
"I lost sight in my right eye for 12 months and that was a period of great reflection and self-flagellation so to speak," Geoff said with a laugh.
"Then, because of my service in Vietnam and a few other things I developed PTSD and significant depression and sort of anxiety. I used to hide it quite well. I became a bit of a workaholic. I didn't do anything in the anti-social sort of areas."
But he couldn't hide it from himself and he knew he had to do something.
Then he read about Liz Jennings' work at Redgum Walers in Thagoona.
"I didn't do terribly much with my life for a while and then last year, just after Anzac Day, I happened to come across an article where Liz had been interviewed and the whole thing struck a chord with what she does with horses and people and particularly with kids who have a lot of issues," he said.
"So I tracked her down and came out here and pestered her and all I wanted to do was hang about with horses because I've been associated with horses all my life and in fact back when I was in the Army I had horses when I was at Canungra.
"I used to get a lot of benefit out of it because I worked in the medical field. At the time, I thought it was just a diversion but I realise now it was therapeutic.
"I just wanted to sit in a paddock with half a dozen horses and get my head together."
The turning point was one day when Liz said she wanted him to go with her and look at a horse that was being given away.
"I thought we were just going out to have a look but the horse float was on the back of the car and next thing I came home with a horse," Geoff said.
"He and I have established a wonderful relationship. We was very standoffish at first; he wouldn't come near me - he wouldn't come near anybody - so after a while he and I sort of jelled and I've got back into the saddle and I help Liz when she lets me.
"Then I got involved with the Queensland Mounted Infantry Historical Troop - again through Liz and being out here one weekend - and helped out when they had a training thing. So Gus and I re-enlisted. And I've done a few tasks with them."
At the start, that just meant standing around holding someone's horse.
"I had a goal to ride in the Anzac Day march and a fostered this for quite some time but it was just a pipedream," he said.
"Anyway, the opportunity came up and we had a practice just before Anzac Day and I had Gus with me and he played up like there was no tomorrow. He was just very anti-social.
"But on the day we went and did it - absolutely magnificent.
"He was just an absolute gentleman. As a result of that and a couple of things that happened I found it - to say therapeutic sounds clinical makes it sound almost clinical - but it was mind-changing, a bit life-altering.
"I think that's a reason too why my fellow settled down on Anzac Day; I spent so much time psyching him up and psyching myself up.
"A handful of liquorice and carrots helps too. And my horse has also taken a liking to oaty muesli bars of all things. He's quite passionate about them.
"We've got an arrangement - I offer him a range of inducements and he behaves.
"He doesn't mind a drop of coffee occasionally."
Recently, Geoff was involved in the Mates for Mates ride around the Enoggera reservoir and Mt Nebo. "I rode that with another lady from the lighthorse and we finished about 9pm," he said.
"I can't find the right word but it was almost like a big release.
"It was just me and the horse, good company and a pretty tiring sort of day, tiring physically but not emotionally.
"Emotionally and psychologically it was quite good.
"I hang out with my horse every day. I don't ride every day because people are starting to frown at me riding by myself in the bush. I've already had one fall and everybody's been upping me for the rent.
"But I just go out there and brush him and feed him and pester Liz to let me come out and pick her brain and sort of cross-pollinate.
"There have been moments when I've been out riding by myself and it's become an extremely emotional thing.
"There are a variety of things that trigger PTSD - sights, sounds, smells, music. I think in the managing of it, the strategies you develop, horses will bring out the emotions too.
"Not in a judgemental way."
"They're not going to turn around and say, 'Harden up, princess, you big sook'.
"But they can tell and I firmly believe that."