Britain’s unsung equine heroes: the equine therapy horse for people with learning disabilities

Every day, our horses work for us tirelessly, teaching riding skills, providing therapy and promoting equestrianism. In our new series, Sara Walker meets some of the horses and ponies who are Britain’s unsung heroes, such as Sam from Ferring Country Centre...

Established for over 30 years, Ferring Country Centre is an independent charity in West Sussex which offers riding therapy for both adults and children as well as a day care centre for adults with learning disabilities. They aim to create positive futures for the people they help, and enable them to play a valued role in society.

“A great deal of our developmental work relies heavily on fund raising,” explains riding therapy unit manager Jackie Tomlin. “As well as being a day service, we’re open to the public seven days a week and we have a garden centre, farm and café. The riding therapy unit supports up to 27 adults each day, who help with the day-to-day care of the horses. When we’re running at full capacity we have 14 horses who are involved both with our day customers and also with the therapy sessions. These sessions are run for adults and children with physical and learning disabilities and play an important role. The sessions help develop core strength and balance, social skills, empathy and provide a sense of independence. Our day customers help the instructors in these sessions, as do our amazing team of volunteers who are aged 12 years and up — we’re very grateful for their support.

“One of the most valued members of the equine team here at Ferring is the lovely 17hh Sam [pictured throughout] — like some of our other horses, he’s on long-term loan to the centre. His owner, Kate Atkinson, bought him when he was four, and he’s now 24. Kate had to wait until she was 30 to get her own horse, so his registered name on his passport is ‘Worth the Wait’. Over the years, they competed together in all disciplines including British Dressage (BD), unaffiliated one-day events, Coloured Horse and Pony Society (CHAPS) showing and some British novice affiliated showjumping. Everywhere they went, everyone loved Sam!

“When it came to retiring from competing, this special horse would not have been happy without a job to do. As he loved being around people, Kate looked at various options and decided that Ferring Country Centre offered the perfect next step for him. Sam came for a month’s trial at the centre to see if he liked the busy environment and would enjoy his new job. During the trial, we tested him extensively on the various skills he would need in his new life as a therapy horse. These included dealing with sensory equipment and having to get used to our big, blue, hydraulic lift, which we use to lift riders to the height of the saddle to mount and to be hoisted from wheelchairs. He took everything in his stride and once again, everyone loved Sam!

“His trial went so well that he quickly became a schoolmaster for our riders. He is such a well-mannered horse and so gentle, seeming to have a sixth sense to take care of ‘his’ people. His work varies from lead-rein with total novices who may need assistance to balance, up to riders who can do independent walk, trot and canter. The amazing thing is that despite his size we can put children as young as four on him, and even if his riders are noisy or nervous, he never falters. He does everything from joining in our in-house shows to dressing up in antlers and bells at Christmas!

“One of my favourite ‘Sam moments’ was when he took part in a staff Christmas gymkhana. Despite the noise and excitement, Sam completed every race like a professional dressage horse, changing legs in canter during the bending race and lapping up all the cheering!

“His gentle manner helps small children overcome their fear of these big animals, and he’s helped so many riders over the years. He’s built up an affinity with one of our junior riders, and just sitting on him for half an hour each week is her therapy. He has helped her become more confident, and she buys him a horsey advent calendar every Christmas.

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“In general, our horses preferably need to be good weight carriers with an even temperament and be as bombproof as possible. It’s lovely to see horses who have never done any work like this learn to accept and enjoy it and allow us to provide the services we do, which are so important. We rely on fundraising to be able to buy horses and come up with lots of ideas to try and raise this awareness. We hold many events and our horses are available to be sponsored.

“Our staff team have nothing but lovely things to say about Sam, such as ‘he is a dream’, ‘he is incredible’ and ‘I love him’. When he is due to retire he may stay with us or go back to Kate, but either way it will be well deserved — he is one in a million.”

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