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What’s Brewing? With Sally Mixon, founder of Abijah’s, and Mark Irving, former Jockey

Have you ever met some­one that was so inspir­ing, you knew you had to be a part of what they were doing? For us, that was the team at Abijah’s. We met them at Can­ter­bury Park last fall to learn more about their pro­gram, which pro­vides men­tal health ther­a­py to first respon­ders, vet­er­ans, and back­side race track work­ers by incor­po­rat­ing retired race­hors­es. They told count­less sto­ries of lives changed and at the end, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room.

After under­stand­ing how deeply they’re help­ing heal both humans and retired thor­ough­breds, we knew we want­ed to part­ner. We took them on as a pro bono client and have been work­ing togeth­er ever since. We sat down with both Sal­ly Mixon, the founder of Abijah’s, and Mark Irv­ing, Abijah’s strate­gic part­ner, for­mer jock­ey and race ambas­sador for Can­ter­bury Park, to learn more about what sparked the cre­ation of Abijah’s, how it’s going, and how oth­ers can be inspired to launch pro­grams that fix long-stand­ing problems.

For those not famil­iar, can you share more about what Abijah’s is and what you do?

Sal­ly: We are a men­tal health orga­ni­za­tion that has part­nered with Can­ter­bury Park using retired race­hors­es to work with mil­i­tary and first respon­ders, back­side work­ers  and the pub­lic to pro­vide equine ther­a­py for those strug­gling with PTSD, sui­ci­dal ideation, depres­sion, anx­i­ety and more.  We use and are cer­ti­fied in a ther­a­peu­tic method where we incor­po­rate retired race­hors­es. Can­ter­bury Park is the first race­track in the Unit­ed States to have a pro­gram like this. 

Mark, you’ve been involved in the rac­ing indus­try for your whole life, how do you think Abijah’s is help­ing people?

Mark: I’ve seen dif­fer­ent aspects of men­tal ill­ness issues in the rac­ing indus­try in the UK, Europe and in Amer­i­ca. It’s a tough life, very tran­sient, trav­el­ing from track to track for the groomers,  train­ers, jock­eys, exer­cise rid­ers, vets, etc. There is a lot of pres­sure — from keep­ing the hors­es fit to win­ning the races.

Sal­ly: And for the first respon­der com­mu­ni­ty, hors­es bring a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent insight and intu­itive­ness to ther­a­py that tra­di­tion­al talk ther­a­py does­n’t have. Using off track thor­ough­breds in par­tic­u­lar, they par­al­lel a lot of our first respon­der and vet­er­an pop­u­la­tions in their per­son­al­i­ty traits, and are very one track mind­ed, very focused and very dri­ven. Often these indi­vid­u­als don’t have words for the trau­ma that they’ve expe­ri­enced, and in this type of ther­a­py, they don’t have to relive it or even share it. The hors­es pick up on what’s going on inter­nal­ly, and they play that out exter­nal­ly. And so their sto­ry unfolds before them in an emo­tion­al­ly safe way.

What does a typ­i­cal Abijah’s ses­sion look like?

Sal­ly: We put togeth­er a treat­ment plan with an indi­vid­ual, that can adapt, grow or change at any point in the process. Then the hors­es become part of their sto­ry and help them deal with what­ev­er issue they are bat­tling, whether it’s PTSD, depres­sion, anx­i­ety, addic­tion, etc.  By doing this work, they’re able to phys­i­cal­ly expe­ri­ence what it’s like to work through their strug­gles with this incred­i­ble ani­mal.  Again, rather than just talk­ing about it and being in their head, they are actu­al­ly liv­ing and breath­ing this expe­ri­ence out, which is incred­i­bly empowering.

You both come from dif­fer­ent sec­tors of the indus­try, how do you think those dif­fer­ing expe­ri­ences have helped when start­ing Abijah’s?

Sal­ly: With Mark’s expe­ri­ence as a jock­ey and me being an exer­cise rid­er, both of us are in the cul­ture, which cre­ates trust among the back­side and the rac­ing com­mu­ni­ty.  We are try­ing to ele­vate and trans­form the indus­try, and we need to be a part of it to make that hap­pen.  Through Abijah’s, I love redefin­ing the val­ue of these thor­ough­breds. We might take a horse that’s been bro­ken down and can’t race any­more, and the indus­try says it has no val­ue. But now through Abijah’s, that very horse is sav­ing lives.

Mark: I’ve been around hors­es my whole life and once you have that bond with them, once they trust you, once you see those ears go for­ward (mean­ing hap­py), you make that con­nec­tion and it’s a great feeling.

What have been some of the biggest chal­lenges to get­ting a pro­gram like Abi­jah’s off the ground?

Sal­ly: It’s nev­er been done so I think that’s the big one, right? Peo­ple on the back­side or peo­ple in gen­er­al in the indus­try and in the pub­lic are like, what is this horse ther­a­py? So not only edu­cat­ing the indus­try, but edu­cat­ing the indi­vid­u­als that have the hors­es, the train­ers, the own­ers, is a lot of what we’re doing.

You also have the chal­lenge of the men­tal health stig­ma because with­in the back­side pop­u­la­tion, and mil­i­tary and first respon­ders, nobody talks about that. It’s tak­en a few years to prove the val­ue of what Abijah’s is doing. And now we have this awe­some track like Can­ter­bury Park that’s say­ing, “OK, how can we help you and what can we do for you ? “We’ve come a long way and now we’re hop­ing to take it even fur­ther to oth­er tracks.

What advice would you share with some­body who is work­ing to solve a prob­lem and dreams of launch­ing some­thing like you did with Abijah’s?

Mark: Be stubborn.

Sal­ly: Grit is a word that comes to mind. You’ve got to take “no” as an opin­ion, not as a fact because you’re going to hear it a lot.

I’d also encour­age sur­round­ing your­self with peo­ple who are going to sup­port you because there’s going to be times you want quit. And there’s going to be times you ask: “what is the point? What am I doing?” It’s a sac­ri­fice 100% and you might lose rela­tion­ships and gain rela­tion­ships through the process.

What are you brew­ing these days?

Sal­ly: Mint juleps!

Mark: York­shire tea. I’m from York­shire orig­i­nal­ly. I use hon­ey and lemon, but you can also put milk in there. That is my every day, get-up-in-the-morn­ing drink of choice.

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