Getting on and off a horse can be more difficult for some than others. People we support have experienced huge benefits to their wellbeing and physical strength, by learning to ride and by being around horses and other animals.
For those on the autism spectrum, research has shown that levels of oxytocin, the hormone which promotes social interaction and increases bonding and empathy, increase when interacting with horses.*
Raphy, Daniel and George are supported by our services in Somerset. All have profound learning disabilities and physical disability and all have found confidence and joy through riding. Enabling support worker David Trotham realised that going to the stables was a learning opportunity for Raphy that embraced more than just riding: ‘We have a therapeutic riding centre nearby in Taunton called Conquest, and when we first started, I arranged with them that Raphy and I could turn up an hour before his lesson. Coming to the stables made so much difference to Raphy that after two years, he was accepted as a student, and with staff support, he now attends one day a week.’
David explains the day’s schedule for Raphy, who is non-verbal: ‘In the morning, Raphy learns horse- and stable-care, grooming and feeding. He loves grooming and engaging with the horses. His favourites are Sergeant and Biscuit. He walks donkeys and sheep out into the field, feeding the animals from the back of a truck, and herding the goats. He then has a group gym session to build core strength, where he uses the punch bag, rowing and cycling machine. After lunch, Raphy has a riding lesson and a short classroom session, as he’s working towards a horse-care certificate. Kate, a Conquest member, says: ‘We can see a big improvement in Raphy’s posture, balance and core strength as a result and he is so proud when he wears his riding hat.’
‘Sensory overload is a big one for Raphy, affecting what he will touch and walk on,’ explains David. ‘Wearing gloves proved to be helpful and a slow, sensitive introduction to touching new things. Raphy also found walking on wet grass difficult, but now with someone accompanying him, it’s a breeze.’ Enabling someone to try new things in this way is demanding on staff hours and commitment but something Livability staff see as an essential investment.
For Daniel, life is enriched by being around horses. ‘Daniel rides the same horse every time, and gets the horse out of the stable,’ says David. ‘He works hard getting food and water for the horse, and grooming and cleaning the tack. We tailor the visit as a kind of training day, for confidence and stamina. It sounds odd but Dan absolutely loves to take the wheelbarrow and go off into the field to collect horse manure. It makes him feel free, having the field to himself and going where he wants.’ Daniel is soon to try out a new stables, along with housemates Emma and Liz, who want to try riding for themselves.
With George, David took a different tack to build George’s confidence and wellbeing. ‘George wanted to get back into work and into the community but he is very anxious,’ says David. ‘Getting him to use a bus, which he’d need to get to work, was very difficult for him. We started by me driving him in the car along the bus route for a week. He loves gaming and I showed him that taking the bus meant he’d be able to get to some good game shops in town. Then we went on the bus together and talked to the driver about what George was trying to do. We built this up over a year and then one day, George texted me from town and said he’d got the bus on his own! That’s a big step.’ George also loves animals and is involved with a riding stables, as well as making visits to animal sanctuaries whenever visits are permitted. From his first encounter with horses, George says: ‘It changed my whole life.’ This has enabled George to embark on new adventures, including swimming with sea-lions.
As well as learning disabilities, many of the people supported by Livability Somerset have physical challenges, which getting involved with riding have helped, says David. ‘Riding helps co-ordination, muscular problems, short-term memory and mental health. Seeing someone with some of these conditions dismount from a horse is incredible – they have to have courage. For us, it’s quite daunting to let people we support get on a two-metre-plus horse, when you know they’re worried about getting into a car! But obviously the riding centres’ work with harnesses and supports is immaculate, and we work very closely on health and safety and risk assessment. Seeing what riding and the company of horses does for wellbeing of the people we support – the boost and confidence it gives them – makes the work of setting it all up so worthwhile.’