A lifeline in the pandemic: how horses have been a saviour over the past year *H&H Plus*

  • Horses have become a coping mechanism for many during the pandemic, as Eleanor Jones discovers

    When the order was first given, last March, “you must stay at home”, the country came to a shuddering halt.

    With schools, offices, shops and workplaces closed, those riders who were still able to visit their livery yards throughout the dark spring days of the first lockdown were deeply grateful to have a passion that legitimately took them out of the house, and to be able to retain some semblance of normal life.

    The lockdowns have highlighted the role horses can and do play in benefiting the lives of all those fortunate to have contact with them. Awareness has been growing over the past few years of the wide and lasting benefits of equine-assisted therapy and learning, and the current situation may be when people need it the most.

    Andrew Stennett, of I-Pegasus CIC, based at Grove House Stables in Nottinghamshire, set up his riding school 30 years ago, with one horse and one pony, on his family farm.

    “Horses had always been my route to engage and feel of worth,” he explains. “I was fortunate enough to have the ability to ride and train with superb people, but that’s not something that’s available to everyone. My passion had always been dressage but I realised my real passion was training, and giving people opportunities.

    “I know the sweat and tears of the horse industry – but I also know the tremendous opportunity we have and, unfortunately, we don’t celebrate enough what horses can do for people.”

    Andrew is one of a number of centres across the country delivering the British Horse Society’s Changing Lives Through Horses programme, which aims to help young people who are not engaged with education or society, with astonishing success.

    “It’s not a riding course, it’s about developing life skills and self-esteem; it’s about teamwork and communication,” Andrew says. “It is also about English and maths; how many buckets of feed does that horse have, and what about if the horse only has half of that? One child said, ‘The horse will be cross,’ and I thought that was lovely, and of course correct.”

    Like all riding centres, Andrew’s had to close during the first lockdown, but during the latest lockdown, those offering therapeutic riding have been allowed to continue, providing a lifeline to those who need it most.

    “There are young people who otherwise wouldn’t have come out of their rooms, except for meals,” he says. “When we went into lockdown, I realised how much we need a community, and how much they need us; one of my girls took some ponies out for a walk yesterday and she had 20 people looking at them via FaceTime, and saying how much of a difference it made to see them. It took us half an hour, and what a difference it made.”

    Hayley Squirrell, of Squirrells Riding School in Kent, also delivers the Changing Lives programme, which she says has been of great benefit during lockdown.

    “It’s made a massive difference,” she says. “For some of the students, it’s the only time they feel relaxed; they’re less anxious, their depression isn’t so bad. It’s their outlet.

    “One student in particular, who’s in care – I don’t know where he’d be this lockdown without the horses. Many of these people have suicidal thoughts or are self- harming, or that’s what they’d be like if they weren’t coming here.”

    Horse World

    Chloe Whiccombe has an idea of where she would be were it not for horses. The 23-year-old joined the Discovery programme at Bristol-based charity HorseWorld in autumn 2019, having attempted to take her own life.

    “I’d always liked animals and horses, and when they offered me a place on the course I said ‘Yes’, as I wasn’t doing anything,” she says. “It was a big opportunity, but I didn’t know how big.”

    With no thought other than the fact spending time with horses might help, Chloe started the course, and stayed. This winter, when the charity was applying for apprentices, she applied and was successful, so this lockdown, she has been there full-time.

    “This is the first time I’ve had a job where I’m happy and I look forward to going to work,” she says. “I can’t wait; it’s become my life.

    “If I hadn’t had it, this lockdown I’d just be sitting in my house, feeling bad. It would have been awful; just being able to go out for one walk when you have mental health issues, or in general, is really hard, but this means I go out, I’m sociable, and I’m being productive, for the first time.”

    Chloe says from the start she liked the way she could be herself with the horses; that she did not have to “put a face on” and pretend she was happy, and that talking to a horse can be easier than to another person.

    This is something the Discovery staff have seen before; young people may not have spoken to another person for months, but within a couple of sessions, they will talk to a horse. There is often a bond of empathy to make the connection, as the horses who take part in the programme have often been rescued from bad situations that strike a chord with some of the participants.

    “It’s an amazing opportunity we’re given every day, to work with these horses and young people, and the impact our rescued horses can have is unbelievable,” says Discovery course leader Sharon Howell. “When we reopened in September, people were desperate to come back, and the young people were saying what a difference it made. Not being able to access us, they felt abandoned, and to be able to come back is a real lifeline.

    “Some of the girls who come on a Wednesday were saying that just to have this got them through the week; that’s massive.”

    Sharon says that with ever-changing Covid restrictions playing havoc with routines and plans, the unchanging presence of the horses and staff has been the one constant for the young people to hold on to.

    “There’s one student who was really struggling at school; we worked really hard with her to open lines of communication, and get her to re-engage with her education, then lockdown happened,” Sharon says. “She was in year 11 and unable to take her exams, which she’d worked so hard for, and she was so disappointed.

    “But she returned to us, and she’s just found out she’s been accepted at Hartpury. She’s not just re-engaged with education, she’s achieved her dream, and that’s phenomenal.”

    Horses can be therapy to all of us, as well as partners in sport and members of the family, something amateur showjumper, nurse and mother Jessie Tamman, who also runs her family’s livery yard, knows very well.

    “The first lockdown was absolutely surreal,”she says. “Social media took over; I had to take myself off it because people didn’t really believe it [about the virus] so you felt like you were fighting a losing battle at work and then outside it too.

    “Lots of riders were arguing about not being able to go to shows, but at work, we were FaceTiming people’s family members because they were dying, and that was the only way they could say goodbye.”

    As Britain basked in a beautiful spring last year, Jessie was working back-to-back night shifts, not seeing the sun. Even on her days off, she would often get a call to say a colleague had come down with the virus, and could she come in for a few hours? She always did.

    “It was so hard, and it still is,” she says. “The girls in intensive care are fighting battles every day. You’re under so much pressure because everyone’s tired, but fighting for their patients; you get to know them, and if Covid kills them, you feel you’ve lost someone, too.”

    Jessie is now working in a prison hospital as well, and looking after her two-year-old son, but she manages to find time to ride.

    “It’s somewhere I can switch off,” she says. “I don’t necessarily have to go to shows to enjoy my horses; even a 10-minute ride gives me my sanity back, and I’m a different person.

    “Horses are so calming, aren’t they? I think they’re better listeners than anyone; I tell mine everything.

    “Sometimes I think I’m too tired to ride, but as soon as I get on, I’m glad I’ve done it.”

    Jessie says she considers herself lucky to have her job, but also to live on a farm and have access to her horses.

    “Hopefully things will pick up soon, and people can rebuild,” she says. “It’s just a case of having to [cope] at the moment, but we will be fine, we’ll get there in the end. And I can’t wait to get my white jodhpurs back on again.”

    With the end of lockdown now in sight, Andrew believes horses will have a major part to play in the recovery.

    “Horses have saved me at various points, and that’s why I believe I have to harness their power,” he says. “There will be a huge demand coming out of lockdown; we’re already hearing reports.

    “We need to think about the relevance of these programmes, and find out how the riding schools, which play a fundamental role in society, can survive, because if we lose them, they won’t come back.

    “Horses are inspirational, and even if you might not feel that when you’ve been thrown over the other side of the jump, you still know. Maybe one thing to come out of this negative Covid situation is the opportunity to reboot, re-engage and redirect what we can do in the horse world to be relevant in modern society.

    “Horses do gallop through people’s lives, like the Lloyds Bank horse, and once people are smitten, they never look back. They can have an impact on people’s lives at any stage; it’s just about giving them that opportunity.”

    Also published in H&H 4 March 2021

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