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Reversal of fortune

Horses and courses are jumping difficult fences for 30 youngsters with special needs.

A passion for horses changed Tarnyia Stacey's life after the trauma of being bullied at school.

Tarnyia, now 20, was born with Turner's Syndrome which slowed her development and restricted her growth. After years of avoiding school, she has become enthusiastic about studying after signing up with the Fortune Centre for Riding Therapy in Dorset.

She says: "At school I was picked on because of my size, and always talked down to. I was never interested in lessons, so I used to sneak out and bunk off. But here I can't wait to come in every morning. It's given me a second chance, and I've learnt a hell of a lot."

Along with 30 other youngsters with a variety of special needs she is on a unique two-year course which puts the horse at the centre of the curriculum.

The young people are referred to the centre by local authorities, social workers, specialist careers officers and the Riding for the Disabled Association.

Riding therapy is widely used in other European countries and in Canada. Initial scepticism among doctors and psychologists in the United Kingdom faded as the benefits to students became clear. FE inspectors recently called the Fortune Centre "outstanding".

The students, aged 16-25, have mild or moderate learning difficulties, or are emotionally disturbed. All have had problems in conventional schools. But at the Fortune Centre they need one qualification to be considered for a place - a passion for horses.

"So often learning failure brings emotional problems in its wake," says the centre's director Jennifer Dixon-Clegg. "Many of the students are vulnerable because they're very aggressive or passive. For them the horses provide a steadying influence, because they give direct, honest and immediate feedback. "

Staff find that being able to control a horse increases the students' self-confidence, and makes them easier to communicate with. "It's easier to talk to them when they're mounted on a horse and concentrating," says teacher and riding therapist Diana Graves. "One boy here would have no problems at all if he was permanently on a horse."

Situated on a wooded slope in Avon Tyrrell in the New Forest, the centre opened in 1976. In its spacious yard surrounded by stables for 30 horses, and flanked by two large riding arenas, the students learn the basics of riding and how to feed, groom and generally care for a horse.

The students' passion for horses leads them in to study - once reluctant readers become keen to develop the skill so they can learn about horses, or read instructions on feeding.

Those who struggle with maths find it easier to grasp concepts when they are related to a horse's movements. "They're not looking at circles in a book, they're making them in the sand while riding a horse," says Jennifer Dixon-Clegg. "Things like diameter and radius are easier to learn in this situation."

Even in the classrooms next to the stables the teaching is horse-related. In basic literacy and numeracy sessions many of the stories or questions involve horses. And students become more eloquent in speaking sessions when horses are the subject.

One of the aims of the centre is to help students develop life skills to foster independence later. This is done at Wootton Hall Farm, a residential centre five miles away.

Here again the horse features strongly. Keeping rooms tidy, for instance, is linked to the need to keep stables clean. The teachers have seen the students become more independent, more communicative, better able to look after themselves and organise their lives, says Henrietta Reynolds who runs Wootton Hall.

They've also become more physically adept and confident: one girl who couldn't stand on a chair was able to after standing on a horse.

As a result of the course, students previously thought unemployable have been able to find jobs. Some of these are horse-related, usually in small private stables. But others involve working with children or elderly people, or in supermarkets or canteens.

The only other centre in the UK is The Bridg'It Venture in Scotland, at Drumnadrochit near Inverness. Run since 1992 along similar lines to the Fortune Centre, it caters for five youngsters with special needs, helping them too to bridge the crucial gap between school and work.

The Fortune Centre also trains riding therapists, several of which have plans to open similar centres around the country.

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