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.