Britain’s unsung equine heroes: Polly — ‘she helps people become proud of who they are again’

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, continuing with Polly from Horseback UK the adult equine therapy horse for military veterans

Since 2009, the Scottish charity Horseback UK has been working with mentally or physically scarred servicemen and women to help restore their confidence and dignity. Founded by Jock Hutchison, himself an ex-serviceman, and his wife Emma, a British Equestrian Federation accredited coach, the charity uses a herd of 30 horses to teach a range of skills. Star member of the team is 14.2hh coloured cob mare, Polly.

“Polly arrived in the summer of 2013,” says Emma. “She actually came to us from World Horse Welfare (WHW), who’d rescued her from appalling conditions. When she was found, one of her hind legs was completely de-gloved in a serious injury. WHW nursed her back to health and kept her until she was four. At that time, we were thinking about taking on a new horse and WHW thought she was ready to start a job, so the arrangement suited everyone. She wasn’t broken when we got her, and had had no training in the sort of work we do here, so we started with her from scratch. She’s now 10, and is a very trusting and affectionate mare which is incredible when you consider how she started out in life. We took things very slowly with her, and she’s now a key part of the team.

“She’s got a lot of character, she loves people, loves her job and she’s inquisitive. We use her in both ground and ridden work and she’s also broken to drive. All our horses live out in a herd, and she’s definitely one of the dominant mares! When you go into the field, all the horses will come over and the ground shakes when Polly comes thundering up.

“About a year ago, one of our course participants had the idea of taking his bagpipes into the field and Polly came right up and listened. One nice thing about her from our point of view is that she’s not a walkover, so she’s the ideal partner for people who need to assert themselves more and build their confidence. You have to tell her who’s in charge, and although she’s completely safe she can be a challenge. I always say that she’s worth her weight in gold, and it is quite a considerable weight!

“Some of our participants have physical injuries but the majority have mental scarring, such as PTSD. Many of them have become isolated, have split with partners or become estranged from family and are having trouble adapting to life with their injuries. The work Polly does helps to restore their confidence and increase self awareness. Horses always give you honest feedback. For example, if you go into a roundpen with your shoulders back and a ‘tough guy’ attitude, the horse isn’t going to want to work with you.

“Our courses cover three weeks over a six month period, and at the end of it people come out with a proper qualification as well as having started to rebuild their confidence and learnt how to reengage with society. Once they leave here, the vast majority of people go back to some form of work, either full- or part-time or on a voluntary basis. They’re sleeping better, eating better and making eye contact with the world again. When people first arrive, they’re often depressed and won’t engage. With Polly’s help, by the end of the course they’re giving presentations about what they’ve learnt and they’re proud of who they are again.

“Working with horses, especially big, powerful horses like Polly, can really push you out of your comfort zone and force you to step up to the challenge. Over the years we’ve had her, Polly must have helped over a hundred people re-start their lives.

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“In addition to working with serving and ex-military personnel, we also do a lot of work with the community, in particular local children. We’ve also just become an accredited centre for the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which means we can now offer official, internationally recognised qualifications.

“Polly still has the scarring on her hind leg from her original injury, but she moves beautifully and we’ve talked about taking her out to do some dressage or jumping competitions to help boost the profile of the charity. She can turn her hoof to anything, so I’m sure she’d be up for it!”

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