So with the way the module system works up at Stirling, I had one last chance to pick any random subject I liked before I start doing Psychology modules exclusively. Continuing with Linguistics was out because it had specialised so only English undergrads could pick it and I didn’t really fancy starting a new subject… so I decided to go out on a limb and choose the work experience module.
Before things got started, we had to ‘apply’ for our placements. One of the major draws of the module for me was that their was a link with the Bannockburn Riding for the Disabled Association, a charity which specialises in riding therapy for disabled children and adults. I sent off my choices and when I heard back, it was one of those wonderful times where the universe does me a solid (previous examples include getting accepted to study abroad at the University of Victoria and whenever I make it to the bus stop on time) because I was given the BRDA as my placement!
Slight issue: I had zero experience with horses.
That was hardly my fault though! My parents are allergic to all manner of furry creatures and my incessant begging for a puppy as a child did nothing to change that. I had spent maybe half an hour tops on a pony way back when on a PGL trip and my only real memory of that was it trying to turn around and march back to the stables when our trek was halfway down a bridal path. Admittedly, not a great start to my equine debut.
But I didn’t let a lack of experience stop me. On my first day at the centre I was immediately thrown into helping out with the classes. For the majority of my time there, I helped out as what is known as a side walker.
This meant that instead of directly leading the horses, I was paired up beside the rider and my job was to help them with the exercises they would complete in the class. For some riders, this was as simple as helping them understand the instructions (e.g. can you lean forward and reach your pony’s ears?) but for others with more physical issues, I had to have a keen eye to ensure they weren’t going to slip from the saddle.
I found myself getting closer and closer to helping out with the horses, partly out of a natural progression of my volunteering but also due to one of the classes that I would normally help with having to cancel their session. Without riders to assist, I found myself bagging and weighing hay, collecting horses from the field and helping groom them. I won’t pretend that there weren’t times when I wasn’t slightly scared of having to persuade 500kg of pure muscle to do what I wanted but overall it was great to indulge my inner seven year old and finally spend some time around such amazing animals. I even managed to bag a free riding lesson in one of the free hours.
Therapeutic horseback riding itself works in different ways for different people but it can help all sorts of areas and in particular improves physical, emotional, social and behavioural well being. I worked with a man with quite severe mental and physical problems in one class. He would vocalise loudly and would sometimes make erratic arm movements when he was on the ground. Once he was on horseback, he would quieten down and his arms would still. I also worked with an autistic child who would not look at me at the start of the session. By the end of the class, he had asked me if we were going to trot again and if we were going to the outside arena. He even patted and thanked his pony before he left.
Without sounding entirely like the reflective journals I’ve had to write for the module, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to volunteer at the BRDA. I don’t think I’m quite ready to up sticks and live on a farm but it was great to get outside of my comfort zone and try something new. Not only have I had valuable experience of learning how riding therapy works but I have also seen first-hand how beneficial the therapy is to its users and the difference it makes. It’s also made me realise how important it is that organisations like the Riding for the Disabled Association exist and that they keep up the fantastic work they’re doing!