Horses prove a stable influence

25th July 1997 at 01:00
"Amy, don't stand near Sandy's bottom," yells Sarah Drake down a line of ponies to a girl on work experience at Acrecliffe Riding School in Otley, West Yorkshire.

The importance of safety is drilled into new riders as the 10 children from St Bartholomew's CE primary school soon discover. Perched on their mounts in the indoor arena, the 11-year-olds look surprisingly confident considering it was only their fifth lesson. They had probably never seen, let alone touched, a horse before that.

Fiona Everall, a riding instructor and one of the family which owns Acrecliffe, has been struck by how children's behaviour and language - some of which is "horrendous" - is transformed by riding. Teachers, she says, are often amazed to see how quickly the badly-behaved youngsters are "sorted" once they get on a "streetwise" pony.

The children are Year 6 pupils spending two hours a week for half a term at Acrecliffe. Their lessons are used as part of key stage 2 science in a national project funded by the British Horse Society.

On arrival, the children divide into two groups - one is taught the basics of riding, the other, how to look after a pony. After an hour they swap over.

At the end of their six sessions the children are assessed on riding skills - mounting, holding the reins correctly, posture, balance while trotting, and dismounting. Then they are tested to see if they know their oats from barley, a curry comb from a hoof-pick, a stirrup from a girth, and withers from a fetlock. They get a BHS-approved certificate to show for their efforts.

Julie Lister, head of the juniors at the 400-pupil school in Armley, a downtown area of Leeds, says the riding lessons have many benefits. The curriculum aspect of the scheme was praised in a recent report by the Office for Standards in Education and it gives the children the chance to learn about the countryside. "We used to take them on school trips and they'd say 'look at that cow' and it was a horse," says Julie Lister.

Some children are terrified at first, but the staff have always managed to overcome their fears. One girl was encouraged just to hold a pony's leading rein with a helper between her and the animal until she gradually gained confidence.

Jo MacInnes, the BHS's area development officer, says projects are not easy to set up. They need commitment from both sides and staff changes could signal their end. The BHS has funded similar schemes since 1990, including one with young offenders.

Meanwhile, Ms Drake is putting her charges through their paces: "Heels down, shoulders back. Nudge, nudge, keep nudging, get them moving. Well done. You've all done well. Give your ponies another good pat."

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