Whenever I was feeling down or gloomy when I was little, I found the greatest solace in giving my Welsh Cob a hug. She always understood, and after a short time with her, I felt far cheerier.
The ability of horses to calm the human heart has been long recognised, and a day’s hunting on a good horse has the same effect: every hunter knows the swell of emotion when moving off from the meet for the first time after the summer break. I was reminded of this recently when I was out with the West Street Tickham in Kent, reporting for Horse & Hound (out on February 11), after the enforced break due to the weather, when the pleasure of being out again more than made up for a relatively quiet day. One member, however, knew the benefits could go deeper. Hunt secretary Sarah Leggat is also chairman and trustee of the Down’s Syndrome Association, a role she took on because her daughter, Georgia, now 17, has Down’s Syndrome. ‘She’s the hounds’ biggest fan,’ Sarah told me. ‘And she loves the horses – if I ever can’t find her, I know she’ll be down at the stables or in the field, just spending time with them. Even my bigger horse is incredibly gentle with her – they know they need to be careful.’
Reporting on a harrier pack a couple of years ago, I met a girl who had learning difficulties, yet was out all day with an enormous grin on her face. Her steady cob looked after her impeccably, and, typically, she was treated just the same as anyone else. There are no barriers in hunting – class, age, gender or disability.
Beyond the hunting field, the success of the Riding for the Disabled Association is testament to the power of the equine in making people forget their problems. Many have heard the story of The Horse Boy as told by Rupert and Kristin Isaacson who took their autistic son, Rowan, to Mongolia to see if he would benefit from a lifestyle spent entirely with horses. In no time, he was riding bareback and alone, able to communicate with the ponies and no longer subject to the demonic fits that had brought his parents to despair. Rowan’s link to horses had first appeared when he had got through the fence into a neighbour’s paddock and lain down amid the horses, whereupon the boss mare sniffed him and made a gesture of obeisance, bending her head in submission. When Rupert took Rowan up on her back, he spoke his first lucid words: ‘Go, go.’ It was an immediate triumph, and one that the family has extended through their New Trails centre in Texas, dedicated to helping similar children.
I encountered a similar incident recently at my stables, Tipton Hall Riding School in Herefordshire (www.tiptonhallridingschool.com), to which my old pony is on loan. The owner, Roger Benbow, had started taking children out from a care home, and I joined him and two youngsters for a ride. The elder, a girl of 13, wasn’t shy in describing how she had been expelled from school, smoked, drank, all the usual and heartbreaking stories. She had only been on horseback a few times, but was fearless, cantering along with perfect balance. Roger explained how her language had been appalling when she first came, and that she resisted all authority. ‘But I’m more relaxed than most,’ he said with a grin. ‘They know when they’ve crossed the line, but they can have fun here and they’ve improved so much.’ The younger, a boy of 11, had been silent and shy when he started, but now was hugely interested in the horses, and asked endless questions about how to steer and stop and how to look after them. I don’t know how much their experiences at Tipton will affect the rest of their lives, but I’d like to think they make a difference.
Schemes like this, which extend to places like Vauxhall City Farm in south London are further proof of how horses can give troubled children an escape from their problems and something else to care for. Horses don’t merely have to be for the rich or lucky few, and shouldn’t be. Their ability to help and heal is boundless. For Julian Roup, head of press at Bonhams, his book A Fisherman in the Saddle explains how he feels about horses. Growing up in South Africa, and later riding in the Ashdown Forest in Sussex, horses have always been of special importance, a tonic or a balm for any mood. He describes the first time he cantered, a lonely child aboard a scruffy small pony on a wild South African beach: ‘The feeling of elation, of freedom, of excitement was indescribable. It was like being given wings and the gift of flight. I was hooked for life.’
I know the feeling, and I hope many others discover it for themselves.