Horses and courses for the young

Riding project helps teach vital life skills

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A Bradford horse riding programme for disengaged school children has drawn praise from participants and their parents.

Changing Lives Through Horses (CL) is a national project organised by the British Horse Society (BHS) that takes place with qualified coaches at approved riding centres including the Throstle Nest Riding school at Wilsden Equestrian Centre.

Opportunities extended

The BHS project is aimed at young people who are “permanently excluded, at risk of permanent exclusion or who have special education needs or disabilities”, those who are not in employment, education, or training, or lack the skills to improve their economic situation,

Throstle Nest is run by Jeanette Wilder, who has been working with horses since she was 12 when, along with her brother, she used ponies from the family dairy farm to teach riding skills to children from the Eccleshill area in Bradford. Wilder’s passion for horses has been extended into providing opportunities for young people who are otherwise very unlikely to learn to ride the animals.

“We put something back into the community. The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) is linked to us. When the BHS established Changing Lives four years ago, I immediately got us involved. Whilst it brings in some income, we lose out by needing to turn away other customers,” said Wilder.

A general lesson at Wilsden costs £20 for 30 minutes and £25 for 45 minutes. On the Changing Lives programme the fees are £28 an hour and £45 for two. The costs are covered by schools, the RDA, parents and charitable associations.

Prodding and poking

Amelia Helm, aged 14, has been riding for ten years. She persuaded her school to let her begin attending CL sessions in September.

“I am struggling speaking in school lessons,” she said. “Coming here is relaxing. It is fun and I have no worries as I don’t need to make an effort for people.

“I do the lessons with other age groups and I relate to them as we are all passionate about horses.”

She also attends weekend pony club lessons and enjoys mucking out the stables and looking after the horses. She wants to do work experience at the riding school next year as she is looking to work with horses when she leaves education.

In addition to support from volunteers, Throstle Nest employs eight full-time staff, all women,

On site it has 21 horses, more expensive to buy in recent years. Horses must be four years old and fully-trained before they can be used in the riding school and the animals, which need to be calm and forgiving enough to be able to overcome some prodding and poking, must be five before they can be employed on RDA sessions. To save costs, Wilder bought a three-year-old horse, which staff are training. There is no guarantee the horse will prove suitable for lessons.

There were nine children of varying abilities aged seven to 15 years on a Tuesday CL session in November.

“We don’t tend to look at their diagnosis but just work with them on a weekly basis as the children can be totally different on each occasion,” said Wilder. “Sometimes they can be having a bad day because of a change of medication. We have a plan but you can realise it won’t work. You must be patient but we have a much lower ratio of staff compared to pupils than at school and so we can make swift changes.”

Special relationship

Warren Keighley, aged six, who has complex needs, has been attending the CL programme for two years.

“A physiotherapist identified that working with horses would be very beneficial for building his core strength,” said his mum Hannah. “The facilities here and the whole environment and dedication of staff, who are empathetic with children that have different needs, means you feel included.”

Grandad Martin is also a big fan. “Warren has moved from being afraid to get on a horse to saddling it up, mounting, leading and dismounting from the animal,” he said.

During lockdown the centre trained parents and grandparents in how to lead horses and this helped facilitate lessons for Warren.

Before lockdown, Warren had built a special relationship with staff member Evie. On the day Big Issue North visited, the pair had met for the first time in over a year.

A smiling Warren said: “What I liked about today is when I saw Evie and I cried as I was happy. Missy was my horse today. She is a bit cheeky like another horse called Dolly. I like coming here and being in charge of a horse.”

According to Wilder the racing industry is offering opportunities to young people to undertake apprenticeships in stable yards and the pay thereafter is good.

Wilder explained that children attending the CL project are taught to work with others and to pay attention and concentrate as otherwise they get into trouble with the horse.

“It also improves their balance and by being fun it helps develop an interest that we can channel into education generally,” she said. “If they switch off at school in English and mathematics then we can get them to write about horses and work out how much to feed the animals.”

In more basic scenarios, children get to recognise different colours when they pick up objects when riding a horse.

The CL programme uses a range of awards that “are structured around promoting the holistic development of all involved and nurturing six life skills for all young people: building relationships, communication, confidence, responsibility, teamwork and perseverance”.

Susan*, who has seen her two sons benefit from engaging with horses said: “My eldest, who is hypermobile and has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has improved his core strength by coming here.

“He has completed the award scheme development and accreditation network qualification, which took him a year. He is not going to achieve a standard qualification, so having a certificate where he can say ‘Look, I can do this’ is great for self-confidence.”

Susan’s youngest son is nine. His CL programme is funded by his school and the RDA.

She said: “It has created a connection with horses, which has helped him emotionally and his attention span has expanded. When riding he must consider the needs of the horse and this moves him away from thinking about himself and helps him to get on with other children.”

Susan believes that many more disengaged children would have their lives improved if there were more opportunities to attend the project.

* Name changed

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