THERE'S an old Arabian proverb that says the horse is God's gift to mankind.
It's a belief that performance horse trainer Karen Foran thoroughly subscribes to.
It was horses that helped rescue her from a depression that at times was so severe she was unable to drag herself out of bed after her second daughter Alice was born profoundly disabled in 1994.
It is being outdoors with horses that she says boosts Alice's health and wellbeing now as a mostly wheelchair-bound 21-year-old who still endures bouts of ill-health.
It is horses that have enriched Karen's life since she was five years of age growing up just outside of Queanbeyan.
"Once you've got their trust they totally give to you unquestionably," the 58-year-old says.
"They can be so incredibly honest.
"You know what a horse's thinking and feeling, they don't hold back."
Karen is the owner of Kamilaroi Equestrian Centre, a not-for-profit organisation that trains both horses and riders at Round Mountain near Cabarita Beach.
Karen's students are the young disabled and able children, along with adults and international competitors hoping to gain a place on their nation's Olympic squad.
Students can learn basic riding skills through to advanced performance like vaulting and jumping.
Such is Karen and her primary school teacher husband Wayne's commitment to the centre that the pair subsidise its running to the tune of $400 a week and family and volunteers pitch in.
Oldest daughter Emily is married to world-renowned Australian horseman/entertainer Guy McLean.
The centre is on an 18ha property they have leased for 12 years, but Karen has been training horses for 25 years.
As a teenager she trained under highly respected Australian Olympic coach Franz Mairinger.
Mairinger is recognised for radically improving Australia's fortunes on the world equestrian stage when he moved here from Europe to coach in the 1960s.
Karen subscribes to Franz's philosophy that there is no one-size-fits-all model to training a horse.
Each must be approached as individuals like you would a child, according to their specific temperament and aptitude.
"I was fortunate enough to see that every horse and every person has something to give, to look for the positive in people and horses and build on that," says Karen of what she learned from Franz.
"Yes, I have a profoundly disabled daughter but focus on what she has to offer."
Karen trains and supplies the legendary percheron horses to the NSW and Queensland mounted police force with interest also coming from South Australia.
It's her job to make sure the horses remain unflappable in extreme circumstances.
"The horse and the rider become a team," she says.
"They become very reliant on each other in bad situations."
Her horses are also in demand for Anzac centenary commemorations as the percherons were used in the First World War in the light horse divisions and for artillery purposes.
In 1997, Alice was three years old and enduring another bout of serious illness and Karen was at her lowest ebb.
She carried guilt and blame for her daughter's state of health.
She recalls on numerous occasions standing in the shower wishing she could be washed down the plughole with the water.
Professional psychological help was not making a difference.
At their wit's end, her husband Wayne and best friend, Cabarita vet Nerridie Fury, intervened in an act of tough love.
They dumped Karen at the horse centre at 7am with no way of escape and left her for the day to take care of the young students and the horses.
Prior to that she had been avoiding the farm and doing just the bare necessities, leaving others to pick up the slack.
"Human intervention was not going to help any more. It had to be horses and myself," recalls Karen of their reasoning.
Karen cites this episode as the turning point that helped her slowly claw her way out of depression, embrace her role as a wife and mum again and start to see the beauty in life.
Having to focus on the horses and children's needs and not her own misery was the circuit breaker she needed.
"It's definitely therapy," she concludes.
"Horses bring out the best in people."
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