Positive learning

Investing in our children’s positive future, in a flexible, nurturing and teacher-endorsed equestrian environment

The impact is fantastic! The looks of awe and wonder, and that sense of discovery… you just see the children’s faces light up when they interact with the horses. They want to do it, they ask for more; it’s the first basic levels of communication.

That’s Angela Windsor, Gold Class teacher at South Gloucester-based New Siblands school, talking about her pupils’ interaction with the horses and ponies at the Avon Centre for Therapeutic Riding – as part of the RDA’s Education programme ‘Learning through horses… learning for life.’

An increasing number of children and young people are benefiting from the learning opportunities made possible by RDA. Yet, there is still more to be done to help schools understand better how working with horses can achieve positive – and measurable – educational outcomes for their students.

The challenge to show results

With schools often struggling with financial and staffing pressures, making a strong case for RDA as an effective provider of activities that support educational outcomes is vital, as Barbara Himsworth, member of the RDA Education Committee and a Special Education Needs (SEN) specialist, explains: “We have built many positive relationships with schools over the years, and understand they often have to justify cost in terms of pupil time, teacher release time, transport, and off-site visits.

“They don’t have the knowledge of what our activities embrace. That lack of knowledge is an area that needs to be developed, particularly with the local education authorities, as they are the ones who will get the message across to the individual schools.”

And she adds: “There is a common misconception in the educational establishment that the children ‘are just riding a pony’.”
In reality, RDA delivers a wide range of activities and programmes that can support and enhance the curriculum and is flexible enough to meet the needs of different types of schools.

Special education needs

So how do different RDA groups meet the challenge of convincing schools that time with horses is time well spent?

As in many areas of RDA life, there does not seem to be a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. For example, New Siblands is a school for children with special educational needs, and links up with the Avon Riding Centre, near Bristol.

As Hazel Sinclair, Assistant Head says: “Kim [Langbridge – RDA Coordinator/Coach at Avon Centre] approached us a few years ago with the idea that children who couldn’t ride on a horse (because of various disabilities) could be offered other activities in the stable environment, such as mucking out, holding the ribbon silks, feeding, or grooming. Some of our school children were already going there, so Kim’s idea resonated with us. With special educational needs you have a licence to be creative. If someone comes and says ‘How about trying this?’, we have the flexibility to try.”

The school has expanded over the past 10 years, and now has seven classes on the primary site, two primary classes on the secondary site, three secondary classes, two classes in post-16 – and a new nursery.

“We cut across every kind of social and ethnic group, which is really interesting, ” adds Hazel. “There’s now also a much bigger community of children with autism. We are accountable for our data, but we can prove that all the things we do contribute to children achieving well.’


However, the challenge to show results from therapeutic riding is different at a mainstream school. As Bunny Penny, at South Godstone’s Specialist Centre for the Visually Impaired in St Stephen’s C of E primary school in Surrey explains: “There’s more of a drive for academic subjects – we’re a mainstream primary with a specialist centre, so the children are all integrated within the school and come to us for additional work. We have to follow a rigid curriculum and timetable.”

The school became involved in the RDA programme more than 15 years ago. Bunny’s background as a horse-riding instructor meant she knew the benefits of riding, and how much the children could gain from it. “Blind and visually impaired children have some additional needs, ranging from learning difficulties and sensory needs, to physical restrictions such as partial paralysis or under-developed muscles and spasms,” she says. “Our Head of Unit saw the crossover, and was very much behind the programme.”

As Angela comments on her experience at New Siblands school: “I didn’t have any horse experience before RDA, and really hadn’t realised how therapeutic it was and what a positive impact riding would have on the children. I was a bit scared of them to be honest – and now it’s changed my mind completely!”


In some cases, it’s the connections within the local community that knit RDA and schools together.

As Jaspa Wynne-Williams, RDA County Coach for North Wales, notes: “We have close links with mainstream schools, which recognise the value of the programme. We’ve been established in the community for 40+ years, and word of mouth is so important.”

Jaspa is also coach and trustee of the Meirionnydd Special Riding Group, teaches Welsh at Ysgol y Gader Secondary school, and is the Additional Learning Needs Coordinator. A recently started after-school session targets a group of year-8 boys who have additional needs and behavioural issues.

She comments: “Schools have often made first contact with us – and through parents or teachers, rather than the local education authority.”
And Sally Anne O’Neill, BHSI, at Little Brook Equestrian, who hosts pupils from both mainstream and special needs schools, agrees that the personal contact is important.

Jaspa has experience of mainstream schools having to strongly justify decisions to take pupils out of the ‘regular’ curriculum: “It can be perceived by people who don’t know as a bit of a ‘jolly’, and it can be expensive. So they need to see what it’s giving back to the children so they’re not missing out on the national curriculum learning. You have to be proactive, go in and gently show how it works, this is what we do, this is what the children are learning; explain what’s going on, and then people tend to take a bit more notice.”

As far as Barbara is concerned, hitting the problem from the top down is ultimately going to be the best way to make the education system more understanding and accepting of RDA’s activities. She is currently exploring how to approach the local education authorities directly: “They’re the people who will get the message across to the individual schools.”

Measurable outcomes

To meet the schools’ need for numbers and facts, RDA tools can provide evidence-based results, with a programme of educational activities endorsed by teaching professionals, including maths, science, music, art and design, and physical education.

As Barbara notes: “In general, we know that teachers have to follow a curriculum, and schools have to justify how money is spent, and the value of the spend.”

In response, RDA has developed a range of tools and activities that support learning goals which, combined with the RDA Tracker, can help to build a strong relationship between RDA groups and their local schools. The RDA’s UK-wide therapeutic outcomes survey using the RDA Tracker showed that riders achieved statistically significant progress in six areas of potential change: communications skills, confidence and enjoyment, relationship building skills, physical change and horsemanship.

Many groups are now using the Tracker as an effective tool to demonstrate to schools the progress riders can make and resources such as Endeavour Awards and Proficiency Tests are used to support goal-setting and recognizing achievement. In addition, many core National Curriculum areas can be incorporated in RDA sessions, with simple exercises to develop numeracy and increase vocabulary, alongside learning equestrian skills.

Education leaflet

The RDA Education Leaflet provides full details of the many RDA tools, and examples of how they work. In brief, the tools include:

  • The RDA Tracker, which records observed change in riders over a set period and is an excellent tool to help make the case for RDA’s place in the school day
  • The Endeavour Award is a flexible scheme that allows riders and coaches to agree goals and rewards achievement. Involving teachers with the goal-setting process can ensure that progress is recognised in school as well as in RDA
  •  Proficiency Tests offer a structured learning programme where schools can see exactly what the pupil has had to learn at each stage
  • The Arts & Crafts competition and Writing competition (launched in 2016) are a great way for riders to produce work inspired by their time at RDA that can be shared with teachers
  • The Asdan programmes and short courses are accredited learning programmes that directly support the National Curriculum

Seeing is believing

When it comes to making the case for RDA, nothing beats the power of seeing RDA in action.

One head teacher, who happened to come out to a session one week, saw for himself the changes that can occur. As Barbara explains: “He watched one little boy from his school who has significant speech problems, although the child understands what’s been said. Because of that communication difficulty, in school, they see very little eagerness or desire in him to do things or to interact. During the session, the head teacher saw the vast difference in the boy’s behaviour and communication. He was able to go back to school with a totally different view of what that boy was capable of doing.”

Then there are the incidental changes and benefits that are difficult to record or measure. Hazel comments that for children with physical or sensory needs, the non-riding sessions (holding ribbon silks, grooming, feeding etc.), provide good intervention. “There was one group of children who really bonded as a group,” she says. “On the way back to school they were chatting on the bus, sharing stories about the horses and the things they had been doing – and we hadn’t seen that level of interaction in school at all.”

However, as Sally Anne (who is also an RDA Coach, County Coach for West Sussex and Chairman of Show jumping for RDA National) points out: “It can be difficult for governors and teachers ‘to see what we see on the ground’.”
She adds that sometimes schools may also not allow children to stay within the programme long enough to see a marked improvement.

As Barbara comments: “The issue is, of course, having the time to get feedback and make use of it – because everyone is so busy. But just getting some children to stand still, allow a stranger to put a hat on their head, adjust the fastening and talk to them while doing it – that one activity for some children is so stimulating because it’s totally new.”

Lifeling learning

Undoubtedly, even with the support from RDA UK, much of the work promoting horses for learning falls to individual groups. But if they understand themselves the benefits of the activities they deliver, that is a strong starting point for building good working relationships with local schools. And those benefits happen every day, in every RDA group, across the country. Some occur in just a few sessions, while others can take years.

“The change in him all came about because of coming to ride,” says Bunny. She’s talking about a young child who would sit in class and could not get on with his work because he had mislaid his pencil – yet also couldn’t identify what he needed to do (ask for, or go get another pencil), and thereby resolve the problem and get on with his work.

“By the end of a year of riding,” Bunny continues, “He was not only identifying his own needs, but also mentoring and looking out for the smaller children. He could problem solve what he needed and get on with it, and it impacted all his subjects in school.”

And Sally-Anne recalls a young child who, when leaving primary school was dismissed as ‘not going to achieve anything’… “He was riding with me for about 14 years,” she continues. “And now he’s a 19 year old man who left school with ‘A’ levels and went straight into a job. The change in him has been amazing, and most of it is through his confidence being built through the riding and competitions that he’s done. So it really is life changing.”

She concludes that RDA Groups know the programme works; a proactive approach will engage the wider world, helping governors, teachers and parents to understand the benefits to young people of engaging with ponies and horses, in a flexible educational environment.

*181 school age RDA riders in 26 RDA Groups.

(First published in the RDA magazine, January 2017)

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