One day a young girl with autism an elective mute, threatened with exclusion from school was taken by her parents to Greatwood, a home for retired racehorses. Quite unexpectedly, the girl developed a close bond with a horse in a vulnerable state, a newcomer to the stable. Within weeks she was talking again.
Helen Yeadon, who founded Greatwood with her husband Michael, was amazed and decided to try and build on this special relationship. When they moved last year to Marlborough, Wiltshire, they piloted their unique Horse Power programme, a collaboration with a practising psychologist and two local special schools, to help children develop "life skills".
Horse Power has reached more than 250 children with special needs including autism and emotional and behavioural difficulties, from both mainstream and special schools. It is free to schools and children come in small groups one morning a week, for six weeks.
With guidance from Greatwood staff, including a qualified special educational needs (SEN) teacher, they carry out horse-related, multi-sensory tasks such as matching and sorting games involving horses' diets and grooming kits and they spend a good deal of time around the 48 horses. They do not ride them most are no longer fit to be ridden but they touch them, talk to them, lead them and learn how to look after them.
This morning, Joel and Paul, teenagers with severe learning difficulties from Prior's Court School, Thatcham, Berkshire, are enjoying meeting ex-racehorses Timmy and Jimmy again, after completing Horse Power last term. Paul hugs the horses affectionately, while Joel demonstrates his grooming skills.
"This is an emotional literacy course, using horses as a vehicle," says Laura Jones, Greatwood's SEN teacher. "Watching the herd here is fascinating for the children. The horses bicker and fall out, just like they do, and have to learn to get back together again. It's also relaxing to groom a horse and have it turn its head and nuzzle you. There is not so much time in school for these kinds of reflective, quiet moments."
The pupils have learnt to interact with the animals in ways they might find much more difficult with their peers.
"The children are calmer here and are beginning to transfer that calm back into school," says Sarah Sherwood, Prior's Court headteacher. The school is now creating its own countryside learning centre with donkeys.
Parents, too, have welcomed the effects. Denise Benham says her 16-year-old son James used to have a phobia about dogs but is now more relaxed. Greatwood, she says, "has opened doors for the future maybe in animal husbandry".
Caroline Taylor is delighted that the horses at Greatwood have given her 16 year-old son Jake, another Prior's Court pupil, a new interest. "It's hard to find things our children would really like to do, to find clubs for them. But now Jake has a hobby he's got an affinity with horses, and I take him riding and he watches horse racing on television. He's more relaxed when he comes away from being with horses. Now he seems to be standing taller."
The secret of the special relationship has yet to be tapped. Debbie Goodwin, lecturer in the school of psychology, Southampton University, hopes to start a research programme to produce some objective data on the horses and children at Greatwood.
Helen would like to extend Horse Power and hopes to find new funding sources, including possibly local authorities; Greatwood costs pound;460,000 a year to run and relies on fundraising. "I love my horses and it's great to see them adapt to these children," she says. "I'm astonished that something that seemed a bit quirky is thought by schools to be so good. You wouldn't think a relationship between racehorses and children would work. But it does and the horses benefits."