Two Shetland ponies have been visiting primary schools to help engage children in discussions about their mental health.
Sven and Freddie have been touring schools in the northeast since October as part of a new initiative launched by Lynsey Swales, a former police officer, BHSAI and trained counsellor.
“We use the ponies as an early intervention to help the children to start talking — because the ponies are there, they don’t realise they are having a lecture on mental health,” Lynsey said.
“They’ll start talking about their experiences while stroking the ponies or looking at them. It gets people to open up, a little bit like the #metoo movement or Talk to Frank.”
This week, which is Children’s Mental Health week [2-9 February], the ponies have been at a school in Middlesborough.
“They booked us for this week last year, so the demand is definitely there,” said Lynsey, who explained that rather than counselling people herself, the initiative sits alongside schools’ existing mental health programmes.
“We’re not re-inventing the wheel — if there is a disclosure, we flag it as appropriate. The school we have been at this week has a “worry monster” that the children can tell their problems to and we also leave postcards with pictures of Sven and Freddie that they can use.”
Having started her career as a riding instructor and working in racing, Lynsey then spent 18 years with North Yorkshire Police until she took voluntary redundancy in August 2019.
She was quick to start her new initiative, which she hopes to register as a community interest company (CIC) in the near future, securing funding from local businesses.
Lynsey said she was it was her work in the police that inspired her to create the scheme, along with a belief that the ponies can reach out to people across all demographics.
“I could have gone in to one-on-one equine therapy but I felt I could help more people by using the ponies as an intervention and counselling tool in this way,” she said.
“I did a foundation degree in counselling, and mental health is something I am quite passionate about, as I have dealt with a lot of stressed people over the years. I also feel that if we help people at an early age then we won’t need to help them so much as adults. It’s a good place to start removing the stigma around mental health.”
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Lynsey owns six Shetlands — pedigree miniatures Sven, who is two, and Freddie, four, along with four other rescues.
Sven was originally bought as a present for her daughter when she completed her GCSEs, and Lynsey added Freddie to the family “for herself”. The herd quickly expanded with other additions rehomed from the British Horse Society and RSPCA.
“They’re like Gremlins, you get them wet and they multiply!” Lynsey said.
“Sven is the boldest boy you will ever meet, he will walk into a room full of people and not look twice — both of them cope well as there is no pressure on them and they are young so have no preconceived ideas,” she added. “They’ll be at a school for a ouple of hours and then back in the field being ponies again.”
Lynsey said that if demand for Sven and Freddies’ services continue at the current rate, she will soon be sending out multiple teams of ponies and handlers.
“We would like everyone to know who Freddie and Sven are,” she said. “I would ultimately like to spread a consistent message from primary schools all the way up to colleges.”
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