Fun in the Sun

Eamonn had an exercise programme he hated. His Occupational Therapist (OT) referred him for a Summer School horse-riding pilot. Not only did Eamonn (who has Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (DCD)), get to enjoy riding in the warm summer months, he retained interest throughout the six-week pilot, experienced improved coordination, and came out of it with an award.
Here’s the story of how it all came together.

‘I’d always thought, when I retired as an OT, I would get involved with RDA and see if I could do something about a summer school for children who were not already in a group,’ says Patricia Mclean, the dynamic force behind the successful Summer School horse-riding project at Lurgan, in Northern Ireland.
Special-needs children integrated into mainstream schools don’t always get the chance to add horse riding to a busy, often-exhausting curriculum.
Patricia notes: ‘There was a particular group of children with DCD [which included Eamonn] who were getting therapy sessions on things like medicine balls and trampolines, but the therapist though it would simply be much more fun on horses, and they would get more movement than on static equipment. The children were extremely keen, and the core strengthening, balance, and coordination were all the things riding horses would provide.’   While there were good RDA groups in the local area, they had few places open for individuals, and, in any case, the children couldn’t attend during the school. And the groups closed during the summer holidays. Patricia discarded the idea of holding the sessions in the evenings: ‘Evenings are not the best because if the children have struggled through school all day, they’re simply too tired by the time evening comes. So then I thought about a summer school.’

It was already April, and the Summer School would take place in late July and August. Patricia approached the OT’s to find (from their caseloads) the children who would benefit the most.
‘There was so much demand, we expanded from my initial idea of six children to a total of eight. The only condition was a commitment (as much as possible) to the whole six sessions (one per week). Then I gave out ‘Expression of Interest’ (EoI) forms to my existing helpers, plus the six I was enrolling, and to the OTs to give to the children. And I found enough people that way.’
The EoI forms were completed and returned by mid-June, and then the Rider Information pages were created and given out. Patricia says: ‘It was quite a lot of work, but I enjoyed it!’

The eight children, between 7 and 10 years of age, all had DCD and were referred by their OTs. The condition presents with co-ordination problems along with poor balance and core strength – all of which are improved through horse riding. Eamonn was one of the eight children.
‘It was something very new to him, because he’d never participated in a sport like horse riding, so right from the start he was quite excited about it,’ says Leanne Fleming about her son Eamonn. ‘Normally, with sports, Eamonn gets excited about trying something new, but once he’s tried it, he realises quite quickly that he can’t manage it, and that he stands out in the crowd. He’s a bright child, so he catches on quite quickly about things that he can and can’t do. But with the horse riding, he just loved it from day one.’
When Eamonn’s OT referred him for the summer school, his mother and the OT agreed he didn’t have to do the hated exercises when he was going to the horse riding (he did go back to the exercise in September). ‘And yet he was doing the same kind of exercises in the horse riding, using the same kind of muscles, without realising it, ‘ comments Leanne.

‘The first day was the biggest challenge!’ says Patricia. ‘Four people got lost on the way, so people were late, and I was short of volunteers. And some got the time wrong, so arrived an hour late –including a parent volunteer and the child. And the group had to be assessed by the RDA group (because it was a new group), so we had the assessment going on, and I was meeting all these parents and children I’d never met… I would definitely recommend the assessor comes on the second day. But we got through it!’
Divided into two groups, four boys rode while the other four took part in various activities – learning about tack, grooming, colours and markings and points of the pony. The riding sessions included progression from mounting to walking, halting, steering and trotting, achieved through graded activities including exercises, games, relay races and obstacle courses and ending with a Countryside Challenge course.
Eamonn’s mother was a parent observer, so got time to watch him. ‘You could see he was improving every week,’ she says. ‘I was amazed at how quickly he could do the exercises; he was bending over to touch one way and then the other. It definitely improved his coordination. As part of his condition, Eamonn loses concentration very easily, but he was so motivated he wanted to listen, so he got a lot out of that. And they were a lovely group of children that just gelled together straight away.’

All eight boys passed their RDA Grade 2 Riding, seven passed Grade 2 Horse Care, and the 8th boy passed Grade 1 Horse Care. They made friends, gained confidence and enjoyed therapeutic benefits in a fun way. The OTs who referred the boys were delighted with the physical progress.   Leanne comments that the volunteers were amazing. ‘They were fantastic with the children,’ she adds. ‘And they swapped around, didn’t have the same child, or the same horse at each session. Eamonn got used to communicate with adults and following directions, and those were things he hadn’t done before.’ Leanne is a Special Needs teacher, and always had it at the back of her mind how brilliant it would be to get children to experience horse riding.

‘I taught in Norway as part of my degree, and two children had access to horse riding during the school day,’ she explains. “So I always remember what these two children got out of the horse riding. You could see that they were so happy.’ Her Special Needs class of 12 children now goes riding at Lurgan, which was looking for another special needs school/group to join. Leanne says it just all came together after the Summer School. She adds: ‘One child with severe autism has started communicating, because he wants to do horse riding and the only way he can get to do it is because he has to talk about it. The principal came out to an RDA session and was amazed at how different the children were at the riding to how they are in the classroom. The parents are also very enthusiastic about it, especially after they came out to a parent’s session. Initially, the parents were a bit hesitant and uncertain – for instance, one parent commented that ‘he doesn’t like butterflies, never mind horses!’ And I said they simply had to try. The children bring that increased confidence back to the classroom. They wouldn’t have these opportunities if the RDA wasn’t there – it’s just such a great opportunity for them.’   Patricia adds: ‘None of this could have been achieved without the backing and help of Lurgan Group, especially Group Organiser Sara McCorkell and all the volunteers who gave their time during the summer holidays. Thanks also to Jennifer Howes of Ballyknock Riding School, without whose generosity in supplying ponies and facilities the Lurgan Group could not function, and to Julie Jordan and Hilary ldzikowska who came to test the boys. We also have two privately owned animals and are grateful to their owners for allowing us to use them.’   As for Eamonn and the Summer School, his mother concludes: ‘As a parent, it was lovely to see him actually wanting to stick at something for the duration. And he did have to study, which is something that he doesn’t really like to do, but he was quite motivated to achieve the award. And as a parent, I also got a chance to meet other parents… I don’t have that kind of channel where I meet other parents who have children with the same kind of diagnosis and going through the same things. So the Summer School has had very positive outcomes.’

Most importantly, of course, they all had fun, made new friends and learnt a new skill that clearly benefited them therapeutically.

  • The friendships have carried on as some of the boys have subsequently joined a further DCD group together.
  • The parents have also made friends and gained support from each other in dealing with the difficulties faced by their boys’ disabilities.
  • Two of the summer scheme volunteers have become regulars, which has greatly benefited the Group.
  • An unexpected development has been the addition of another school group of children with learning and physical disabilities from a Special Unit. (The teacher in this unit is the mother of one of the summer scheme boys. She was so impressed with RDA that she has organised this for her class). This means that the Lurgan Group is now providing riding for 16 children during term time (doubling the number).

(First published in The RDA Magazine, Spring 2017)


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