John Bosley is a deputy headteacher at Abbey Court Community Special School in Strood, Kent (Medway LA). John has worked in PMLD/SLD special schools for 35 years. Abbey Court is an all-age special school, taking pupils from the age of three into the Nursery and through to the age of 19. The Primary and Secondary sites are about a mile from each other. The school has, over the last three inspections, achieved three Outstanding judgements from Ofsted.
Did you know that horse riding offers tremendous benefits for pupils with severe learning difficulties? This article considers an innovative approach to widening education access to include more pupils, including those who struggle with a real-life horse, and those with profound and multiple learning difficulties (PMLD).
To begin with, it is useful to consider the benefits of horse riding. “The therapeutic benefits of riding are numerous and as well as the physical benefits of improving posture, becoming stronger and helping riders to become more supple, exercising with a horse is great fun! You can improve your awareness, communication, confidence and decision making, as well as enjoy activities with a community of like-minded people.” (RDA, 2018).
There is such a wide range of benefits to horse riding that it is easiest to provide some bullet points!
Within an educational setting, it is always important to consider the impact of an intervention, and this is no different.
“In addition to providing cardiovascular benefits, decreased physiological stress is associated with animal interaction, contributing to better overall health.” - Pets Are Wonderful Support, 2007
With regards to the outcomes for pupils the photographs speak for themselves with reference to the therapeutic impact of horse riding “...offering stable work and riding to adolescents in an environment with a supportive adult and peers may benefit their psychological development.” - Hauge, H. Et al (2013).
A member of staff reflecting about one pupil commented that, “She benefitted by starting to overcome her fear of the horse. On the last visit she actually entered the sand school and was coaxed up to the horse to touch it. She has been desensitised”.
Riding also provides an additional opportunity for that all important increased physical activity to manage a pupils weight and therefore can be important part of a pupils PE package. There is also a more formal aspect to horse riding; the opportunity to gain some recognition for their achievements! Pupils have achieved a number of AQA Pre-Entry level awards that are available including:
The majority of these awards were achieved by pupils with severe learning difficulties. Very few pupils with PMLD were able to access the horse riding, and for some pupils the prospect of engaging with a live animal was a step too far (though there were some who conquered their fears over a few weeks, and this had been their target). Barriers for pupils with PMLD included the inability to hoist pupils, the limited physical support available from the saddles, and the less controlled environment that provided specific risks for some pupils.
“Many studies have indicated the beneficial effects in the rehabilitation of patients with diverse disabilities… The combination of a horse riding simulator and the concept of hippotherapy led to a new form of rehabilitation.” - Baillet, H. Et al, (2016).
The idea of buying a mechanical horse simulator was born. This would be indoors in a more controlled environment (and with hoisting available), would provide an introduction to horse riding to those who had a fear of the live animals, and would enable the school to find ways of providing access to pupils with more complex needs. There was a problem, though: horse simulators, used by professional horse riders, are rather expensive. A fundraising initiative - ’Tonto’ - was born, and the riding simulator along with a horse riding instructor were all set up to hit the floor galloping for the start of the 2017/18 academic year.
There are now in place a number of AQA Pre-Entry level awards for a horse simulator, including:
Here is an example of one of these awards:
To achieve the introduction to riding a horse simulator, the pupil will have demonstrated the ability to:
Improved access. The horse riding sessions continue, but in addition there are now at least 30 pupils accessing weekly riding lessons with a qualified riding instructor on the simulator. These pupils are now able to access many of the benefits considered at the start of this article. Some of them will progress to the real horse riding lessons.
Increased accreditation. In addition to the awards achieved through horse riding, at the time of writing pupils are working towards the awards relating to the horse simulator.
Therapeutic benefits. With regards to the outcomes for pupils the photographs speak for themselves with reference to the therapeutic impact of the simulator. Anecdotal evidence, however, includes comments from staff, parents and pupils, including:
“When he first got on Tonto he was very nervous, and did not want me to let go of his hands and back. By end of first session, he was riding independently. He had a further four sessions and wanted to try a faster walk. This lasted about 20 seconds, then he asked to go back to a slower walk. Then he went off-site horse riding, and actually rode the horse for the whole session, with only the horse leader for verbal support. These were great achievement in such a short space of time.”
This was especially impressive as during the home visit, his mum said that he was scared of horses. The family own a horse, and he had fallen off of the trap and refused to go near the horse or ride again!
For two pupils, “it helped them to be focussed and calm upon returning to class. Attention and focus has improved over the course of the term within the riding lessons. All of them now remain on for the whole lesson, developing their riding skills, and also their focus and ability to follow verbal instructions.”.
Effect of Therapeutic Horseback Riding on Posture in Children with Cerebral Palsy. Paper presented at the 6th International Therapeutic Riding Congress,Toronto, Canada, 23-27 August. Bowlby, J. (1969).
Energy expenditure of horse riding. European Journal of applied psychology, 82, 499-503. DCMS (2007)
Equine-assisted activities and the impact on perceived social support, self-esteem and self-efficacy among adolescents – an intervention study, Hilde Hauge, Ingela L. Kvalem, Bente Berget, Marie-José Enders-Slegers & Bjarne O. Braastad (2013)
The health benefits of companion animals. Pets Are Wonderful Support, 2007
The health benefits of horse riding in the UK. The British Horse Society, 2010
Human Energy Expenditure and Postural Coordination on the Mechanical Horse, Journal of Motor Behavior, Héloïse Baillet, Régis Thouvarecq, Eric Vérin, Claire Tourny, Nicolas Benguigui, John Komar, & David Leroy (2016)
Riding, http://www.rda.org.uk/taking-part/riding/ accessed from RDA website, February 2018.
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