A new training project with Dartmoor ponies enabled teenagers with “challenging life issues” not only to complete the gruelling Ten Tors challenge but also to change their lives for the better.
A group of 16 young people aged 14 and 15 last weekend (7 May) took part in a ten-mile hike across the moor, along with ponies from the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT).
DPHT spokesman Clare Stanton said the teenagers had no equestrian experience before the challenge, and that most were scared of horses, but that eight weekly training sessions with the ponies, during which they learned how to care for and manage them, had built up their confidence and self-esteem.
Mrs Stanton said: “They went from no ability with ponies to being able to cope with them on open moorland at a major event.
“The challenge was for young people, who might have been absolutely petrified, to learn they could manage — and if they can manage ponies, they can manage themselves.”
The DPHT created the Fresh Tracks programme after being approached by the Army to provide opportunities for youngsters facing life issues to take part in Ten Tors.
A total of 400 teams of six face hikes of 34.45 or 55 miles across Dartmoor’s difficult terrain, carrying everything they need on their backs. The ten-mile route caters for less able young people.
The 16 students, from Teign and Ivybridge secondary schools and Ratcliffe and Oakland Park schools, trained on the moor with three Dartmoor ponies, all under 12.2hh.
The ponies, Lark, Chatty and George had the qualities needed to help the students learn to cope, according to Mrs Stanton.
“These ponies were born and bred on Dartmoor so they have all the characteristics they need to survive,” Mrs Stanton said. “They passed these on to the young people, giving them confidence and determination, and the strength and motivation to complete the challenge.
“Two months earlier, most of these youngsters wouldn’t even have been able to go out of their front doors to look at Dartmoor, let alone walk on it, it was an enormous achievement. This has changed their lives.”
An assistant head teacher said: “Two months ago, if I had suggested to these lads that we walk 10 miles across Dartmoor, they would have laughed at me.
“Today, they didn’t just walk up and down the tors, they climbed mountains – in their minds – and came back asking to do it again.”
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One parent said of her son: “The change is incredible: he is so much more confident and comfortable with life; he is taking responsibility for himself and getting prepared for the day ahead; he doesn’t get so stressed and worried about every little thing that might happen.
“Our family life has improved so much you wouldn’t believe.”
“These youngsters worked hard to get here and deserve the chance to shine, as well as gaining new skills and a real sense of pride,” said Ten Tors organiser Lieutenant Colonel Peter Bates.
It is hoped the Fresh Tracks event can be extended and will become a regular element of Ten Tors.