Why the horse?

Everyone knows that horses have been used as a form of therapy for the physically disabled for many years and just after the war as a way of helping people with illnesses associated with gastric problems. The horse, however, is much more than a mode of transport, it is a living, thinking, responsive creature that, for those who are motivated by horses, provides a stimulus and a vehicle for learning. The real beauty of working with a horse is that it is a ‘hands-on’ not text book experience therefore you have a concrete response to what you do and a living creature that wants to build not only a working relationship with you but a genuine relationship.

When talking to ‘horsy people’ you hear them use terms such as ’he’s a nice person’ when talking about a horse and the more you are with them the more you appreciate they do have personalities. They are not people, however, and one does have to be patient with them, one has to be understanding, one has to care for them and one has to be prepared to be actively involved with them. Any teacher will tell you these are some of the essential ingredients of successful learning.

The Teaching Strategy

At HRTC we have taken these ideas into consideration when deciding how best a horse can help a young person with problems. The solution has been the creation of a twelve point teaching strategy that is geared towards the needs of the individual child. It is always intended to be challenging but it also always offers success to the individual. The first thought is always for the child, what are their problems, what areas of horse care will benefit them most, how competent are they, how do we balance the syllabus for that child, and so on, tailoring our strategy to suit them. Therefore the teaching strategy has been constructed in such a way that any component can be used in conjunction with any other.

As you have probably already worked out riding is only part of what we do. Focusing on the needs of the child necessitates that we may prioritise learning about diet as being an essential requirement for the diabetic or anorexic, communication is important for the slow learner, balancing exercise and rest for the child with the heart condition and riding for the obviously disabled. These are just a few examples that could be quoted but suffice to illustrate the point. The essential issue is that we take advice from the child, parents and medical practitioners when devising individual action plans always being prepared to adapt and change these plans through constant monitoring of the progress of the child. The starting point is always that the child is motivated by the horse but once this has been established the therapy provided here can resolve issues that mainstream experiences cannot.

Actively Learning

It is obvious that the child is learning about the horse but how is this helping the child? Let us look at the case of diet. The child learns about balancing a diet to accommodate work, rest and play, healthy eating if you like. They also learn about, carbohydrates, sugars, proteins, fats, the constituents of food and how to plan their own balanced diet to accommodate their condition. There is, however, more than obviously meets the eye. Suppose fractions at school have defeated you to the point of embarrassment but know that the horse has half a scoop of nuts and a whole scoop of chaff and a third of a measure of garlic for dinner. It is not an abstract concept, you have to measure it out and suddenly you understand fractions.

Personal hygiene can be a problem for any special needs young person so it is a real bonus to learn about how to keep your own feet healthy simply by learning why you pick out a horse’s hooves. Horses need grooming every day and even need to be bathed and have their mains and tails shampooed occasionally. If you can bathe a horse there is no reason why you shouldn’t do the same for yourself particularly when you learn that keeping them clean prevents chafing and resultant sores and discomfort which can happen to you. Apart from that being clean makes you feel good.

If communication is a barrier for the individual child then the horse is the perfect teacher. They communicate through touch, the mouth and sound and if you want to succeed with them you have to be prepared to communicate You also have to be clear and effective in your commands as well as practise over and over again. The riding arena itself is a prompt to communication being based on letters that govern your direction. One also has to ride shapes and patterns leading one towards thinking about geometry and mathematics, a special challenge in its own right.

Getting it right

Many children arriving here have had to go through the trauma of being diagnosed with a lifetime condition which often leaves them with little self confidence or low self esteem. Many others, because of their particular special needs, have had to suffer failure and perhaps embarrassment because of their impairment therefore have withdrawn into themselves. Our first purpose is to prove to them that they are capable and can succeed and what better way than to look after half-a-ton of horse. If you can do that you can surely succeed in other areas. Once that hurdle has been overcome then the real therapeutic process begins and the children go through learning situations designed to rebuild both their self confidence and self esteem.

Once confidence has been restored the emotional and behavioural issues are addressed. Often the condition has limited the child’s experiences, It is difficult for mainstream institutions to provide the necessary manpower for children with special needs or conditions to participate in trips or hazardous pursuits. Here that manpower exists and safety issues are constantly being addressed therefore the child can take on challenges that would normally be denied. Horse riding itself is regarded as a hazardous pursuit by many. The sense of fear that one’s condition hinders one can be challenged and beaten as can the hyperactivity or indiscipline of some children because riding is an exhausting pastime but the act of riding is extremely disciplined. Behaviour is improved through a desire to want to get it right but without sanctions, usually the dangling of a few carrots is enough.

Finally we look at the conditions themselves and employ strategies that help the child come to terms with them. The greatest help here is that all the people attending have something to deal with therefore there is massive mutual support for each other. It is a regular occurrence to see young people doing blood tests or injecting insulin without anybody even blinking an eye. The children are not treated as ‘different’ but are well on their way to conquering their fears.