Horse whisperer Sarah Shearman has just returned from a trip to Japan where she has been using her techniques to help autistic youngsters and their parents. Catherine Scott meets her.
Sarah Shearman had what she calls a perfect childhood until the age of seven when her world fell apart.
The unexpected trauma of her parents’ divorce, moving to the UK from her native Australia and discovering that the man she thought was her father was not, were just some of the events she had to deal with up by the age of 11.
“Looking back these life experiences have helped me be able to do what I do,” says Sarah who runs Learning to Listen, which started as an equine coaching business but has developed into a centre for helping people, including those on the autistic spectrum.
Now confident about her aims in life, it wasn’t always so.
As a teenager it became apparent that she was not going to excel at school and she left with no qualifications at the age of 15.
Looking to get the “perfect” childhood life back which she had up until the age of seven, she left home at 15 and returned to Australia, but she became ill and returned to the UK just nine months later.
But her return to the UK was marred by another tragedy in her life when her friend Alex was killed in a freak horse-riding accident.
“We were riding our horses down a lane, when two Chinook helicopters came over the hill.
“Alex’s horse bolted, I tried to hold onto her horse that was heading for a wall but I had to let go. She fell off, hit her head and never regained consciousness. It was horrendous.
“I just couldn’t go near horses despite having grown up with them.”
By now she also had a young daughter, Hannah, and she was petrified that she would die too.
“I was a mess for quite a while, but my mum was incredible.”
Sarah credits her mother, Sandra Kreutzer-Brett for getting her back on a horse. She bought her a book by the famed American horse-whisperer Monty Roberts.
“I don’t read books, it’s just not me, but I read it from cover to cover. I read about his childhood, which struck a chord with mine, and I knew that what he was talking about was what I wanted to do. I was on a mission.”
As a result, Sarah wrote to her mentor several times and he told her to undertake a course in the UK, with one of the trainers who had already adopted his methods.
“I was really cocky and quite rightly the horses would throw me off and I would get up and start again.”
Undaunted, and learning all the time, Sarah was selected as one of the star pupils to go to Monty Roberts’s stables in America. She moved out to America with Hannah for two years as she threw herself into her new passion.
“I just got worse, “ says Sarah. “My attitude didn’t get any better. I thought I knew everything. The horses were the best teachers though. They just kept bucking me off, until I learned what I needed to understand.
“I wasn’t listening to the horses. Eventually I realised that and hence the name, Learning to Listen.”
Sarah helped set up the Monty Roberts International Learning Centre in the US and now she has her own organisation here, Learning To Listen.
It grew from a bedroom at her mum’s house in North Yorkshire and then from a farm near Masham with her husband.
She had married into a farming family in North Yorkshire and she thought that she had found everything she was looking for– safety and security and another baby, William.
Initially her work was primarily working with horses perceived as difficult, then a woman turned up at the farm with her 12-year-old boy and her focus changed.
“She was at her wits’ end,” explains Sarah. “She said her son was out of control and she’d heard I was a horse whisperer and wondered whether I could help her son.
“My mum has fostered children all my life. She still has eight and they are all adults and six of them have some forms of disabilities and she has travelled the world with them.”
The boy refused to get of the car for seven hours but eventually he did.
Sarah set him to work on the farm with the horses and gave him a Saturday job. She realised that her concept of working with horses worked as well for people. She believes it isn’t the children showing behavioural difficulties who have the problem, it is those that care and support them, who need to look to themselves first.
“James completely turned his life around. He has is now a mechanic and has emigrated to Australia with my daughter Hannah and they are having a baby, so I am going to be a grandma in November.” Sarah split from her husband, but has now set up a Learning to Listen centre on a farm between Harrogate and Leeds, with a satellite centre on the outskirts of London. She runs corporate programmes, but her passion is helping children labelled as difficult.
She has set up Autism Angels which offers mentoring for children, their carers and siblings as well as respite, fun days and camps. Shantel Ambler helps run Autism Angels but wants to create a purpose-built centre on the farm.
“We are very much at the centre of the community here and within a stone’s throw of Leeds. But we really need to have a purpose-built facility. We have been refused planning permission initially but we are hoping very much to prove that we are a special case,” says Sarah, who has just returned from working with autistic children and their carers in Japan.“I was very much following in my mum’s footsteps as she has been working in Japan for a while.
“We went together and it was an amazing experience.”
TO sign a petition in favour of Sarah’s plans for a dedicated centre in Sicklinghall visit www.learningtolisten.co.uk