Horse power: The therapeutic benefits of riding ponies

Grace Herbert always looks forward to Fridays and sometimes, when it’s not even Wednesday, she will anxiously ask her mother Sheila if ‘horsey day’ has come around again. Friday is when she travels a few miles from her home in Roundstone to attend Connemara Therapeutic Riding.

The session is hosted at Errislannan Manor Riding Centre, a spectacular 200-acre estate, found on a quiet secluded, peninsula just a few miles outside of Clifden.

Grace is an engaging 17-year old with special needs. After coach Jacqueline Boulger helps her aboard a beautiful white Connemara pony called Riona, she sets off on a gentle trot. The teenager has Down syndrome and uses sign language to communicate but her command of the pony is all the more remarkable given that Grace was born with one hand. Her confidence and delight is a joy to witness.

For mother Sheila, the 45-minute Therapeutic Riding session is a treasured part of the week. Not only is it a chance for Grace, a student at Clifden Community College, to take part in an equine activity that has been folded into her studies, it nourishes her physical and mental wellness.

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She adds: “It was so difficult in this area to find a suitable activity and particularly one that she could do with friends. It’s been wonderful to see how Grace’s confidence has been transformed and to see just how much she looks forward to this every week. When she first saw a pony she was hysterical. But now it’s her thing – and she comes every week with a school friend so it’s doubly enjoyable. She took part recently in a show and led her own pony. That was huge.”

Therapeutic Riding (TR) is an equine-assisted activity which can be effective in improving balance, co-ordination, emotional control, self-confidence, self-esteem and community integration. It provides an intense, multi-sensory experience, can aid core muscle tone and posture, support the development of motor ability as well as helping with sensory and social skills. For Grace, it’s a rich cocktail of really big positives.

The weekly sessions are also an opportunity for Sheila to enjoy some respite as specially trained TR Coach Jacqueline Boulger leads her daughter around Errislannan’s remarkable facilities. Errislannan Manor was bought in 1956 by Donal Brooks and his wife Stephanie. Donal was an orthopaedic surgeon who studied medicine at Trinity and was based in London. When he was a child, the Brooks family had often rented Errislannan Manor for summer holidays.

Donal and Stephanie had a family of six children and bought Connemara ponies for each – they also drove to Clifden and collected local children who wanted to come out and learn to ride the ponies. This was how the Connemara Branch of The Irish Pony Club started. Stephanie Brooks, now 95, still lives at Errislannan, and it was with her enthusiastic blessing that Connemara Therapeutic Riding (CTR) was given a home in 2015, under the watchful eye of Errislannan’s long-time manager Roisin Pryce.

As well as stables and an outdoor arena, the centre has a unique sensory trail which leads through a wooded area down to the sea. The trail, personalised for each rider, includes learning stations with an outdoor xylophone, abacus and devices and toys that illustrate words, animals and nature.

CTR is a not-for-profit social enterprise, founded in 2015 by a group of parents of children with special needs. The project services a remote part of Connemara, an area with weak infrastructure and poor connectivity, posing many challenges for the people living there. Families would often have to travel over 100 miles to access therapeutic services for a family member with a disability.

Despite growing demand from across the region, there was a startling inadequacy of dedicated services or activities for children and adults with special needs such as autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, learning disabilities and sensory impairments.

Nicola Heanue was one of the parents in the Paving the Way group who decided to act. In 2014, her son Adam, who has autism, was eight but had no outlet to access therapies.

She says: “As a family, we realised that almost every service available involved a trip to Galway. As a parent, I knew my son was particularly attracted to the outdoors and had a fascination with animals which is not unusual in children with special needs. Children ride ponies to relax and it releases happy hormones. Having a service like this that could be delivered right here in Connemara made perfect sense to me.”

Nicola believes the gentle nature of TR, in contrast to other, far more intensive services, is crucial. “It’s a therapy that is less pressured. It also follows the child, allowing them to do what they want to do. It’s not just a trek – it’s like physio, occupational therapy, speech and language all delivered on horseback. We can really see the change in Adam, it’s his time to chill and relax and be happy.”

The parents heard of a service in Bray, Co Wicklow, called Festina Lente, which is credited with bringing a TR centre to Ireland. With the help of agencies such as FORUM Connemara, the Connemara Pony Breeders Society (CPBS) and LEADER, CTR was launched.

On Friday, the success of this social enterprise will be discussed at the 2019 National Social Enterprise Forum and Expo, being held in Sligo, as an example of what can be achieved by volunteers working with local development companies such as FORUM Connemara and county-based agencies such as LEADER. Assistance from FORUM Connemara’s Local Community Development Programme (LCDP) project officer helped to bring the project to fruition.

Jacqueline Boulger was one of 11 people who were initially trained to be TR coaches, which was funded by LEADER. “It was an absolute eye-opener,” says Jacqueline. “To see how the children interacted with the ponies, raised their confidence, their skills and also to see how much they enjoy the sessions, has been so rewarding. We work with Connemara ponies as they are perfect for Therapeutic Riding. They are incredibly calm and placid, and they perfectly understand what is expected of them.”

The ponies are also all part of a ‘bitless’ herd which means they are ridden without any metal clasps in their mouths, adding to the sense of calm and gentleness. Jacqueline adds: “We also allow the riders to spend as much time as they need in getting on the ponies. Routine and repetition can be important. There is also a mirror in the arena so riders can see themselves getting prepared.”

CTR is used by more than 60 people of all ages, including children such as Grace who attend as part of the curriculum in local schools. Riders can be introduced to it from as young as four, and the whole enterprise is kept going by an army of volunteers and local fundraising as well as receiving assistance from the Dormant Accounts Fund.

One of the volunteers working with Grace last week included the former RTÉ journalist Susan Byrne, who now lives near Clifden and acts as a leader and TR side-walker. “It’s extremely rewarding to see the joy that the riders get from TR and from these beautiful ponies,” she says.

CTR committee member Niamh Philbin says Errislannan is an idyllic base for TR which has widespread backing across the entire community.

“There is such tremendous goodwill in the local community towards CTR. Our fundraising efforts are always very well received in the community. Without the support of our community, our volunteers and our local development company FORUM Connemara, it would be impossible to deliver this fantastic service. We are also very fortunate to have been recently awarded Community Services Programme (CSP) funding which will enable us to employ four people including a full-time manager.”

The National Social Enterprise Forum and Expo 2019 is hosted by Sligo LEADER on November 22. For more information see connemaratherapeuticriding.com

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