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!
- Relationship building - the pupil will benefit from the opportunity to build a relationship, and be able to trust a horse, as well as staff and peers in an alternative environment.
- Activities of daily living - learning to groom the horse and look after its wellbeing. These skills can be transferred to the pupil’s own daily routines, helping them to develop their self-awareness and self-care.
- Sensory experience - therapeutic riding and equine interaction provide a sensory experience which enables a broad range of new stimuli to be introduced, such as smells, sounds, textures, movement, pressure, rhythmical movement and perturbations to balance. The activity develops the sense of movement within joints and joint position, stimulating balance and spatial orientation systems.
- Purposeful hand skills and fine motor coordination - riding requires specific hand skills, as well as the ability to change grasp and alter the purpose of hand movements - both unilaterally and bilaterally. For example, grasping for balance, holding reins and initiating steering, grooming, and touching the horse.
- Balance and gross motor coordination - mounting and riding requires balance and gross motor control. The movement of the horse requires the body to reciprocally activate alternate muscles on both sides of the body to maintain balance. The trunk is forced to work continually to maintain and regain balance. This improves abdominal muscle strength, and is particularly helpful at promoting a symmetrical posture, coordinated movements and balance (very much like rebound therapy).
- Communication - riding and equine interaction requires a broad range of communication skills and behaviours. Pupils will be enabled to develop their interactions with both the instructor and helpers, as well as learning how to ask the horse to move forwards, stop and change direction and speed.
- Exercise as a leisure activity - riding promotes physical activity, and the use of muscles and light exertion, as part of a pleasant social activity. It enables pupils the opportunity to exercise in an alternative environment and take part in a peer group activity.
- Behaviour – riding and associated activities, such as grooming, promote the understanding of body language, tone of voice, appropriate language and behaviour and encourages empathy and understanding of emotions in relation to themselves, the horse and others.
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:
- Preparing to ride a horse.
- Introduction to pony riding.
- Horse riding: basic skills.
- Horse riding skills.
- Riding for the Disabled Association Unit 1 and Unit 2.
- In 2015/16, five KS2 pupils had achieved the RDA Unit 1 award
- In 2016/17, 21 pupils across the school achieved AQA unit awards, and six KS3 pupils had achieved the RDA Unit 1 award.
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:
- Horse simulator skills.
- Preparing to ride a horse simulator.
- Introduction to riding a horse simulator.
- Riding a horse simulator with physical prompts.
- Riding a horse simulator without prompts.
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.
Want to receive cutting-edge insights from leading educators each week? Sign up to our Community Update and be part of the action!