Saddle Up! An article by Hilary Phillips

Jun 04

The following article by Hilary Phillips is in the June edition of the Sherborne Times

The stables staff at Hanford are looking a little bleary eyed at the moment. The reason? Hanford early morning rides have started again! Ask any Old Girl what her favourite memories of the school are, and I’m sure that early morning rides will feature at the top of the list.

Girls in the upper end of the school, we have pupils from 7 – 13 years old, take part in these ride well before the rest of the school is up. It’s a team effort. The boarding staff wake the girls at 6.15am and they are in the saddle by 6.50, the stables staff having caught and tacked up the ponies. They get a good hour and a quarter’s ride and explore further than they often do on an afternoon ride. Once back, they untack the ponies, give them their breakfast then head inside where the catering staff have kept breakfast for them. They have to eat fast then change and get to registration, but teachers treat them kindly if they are a little late for roll call.

If you were to go into a classroom here at Hanford, it would be very easy to see who has been on an early ride. There’s a flush to their cheeks and a whiff of ozone freshness. There may also be a faint smell of the stables….. What is more striking, however, is the way the girls attack their lessons with more energy.

We all know the benefits of exercise and how it helps us stay healthy and focus. However, I think the exercise and contact that our girls here at Hanford have with horses brings something extra to the mix. As Winston Churchill said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”. As social animals, horses are a lot like humans. They have different personalities and hierarchies in their social structures and it is easy to find parallels with the similarities horses have to our own lives. This provides opportunities to learn from them that is very relevant to our girls. They learn about communication, relationship building and emotional control.

The horses at Hanford make their presence felt in many ways, as do the guinea pigs and the chickens, not to mention all the dogs on site. I’m fairly sure there’s a dog for every classroom and it’s a common sight to see girls taking the staff’s dogs for a walk during their free time. But this is more than just a fun time spent with animals. The girls learn a huge amount from our school animals but, I believe, it’s our ponies that teach them the most. Ponies are sensitive creatures, even the most bombproof, and they reflect emotions back to the girls.  It’s crucial to use this feature to help the girls understand their emotions and the impact they can have on those around them. Girls learn to relax, to breathe, to be in the moment around horses. They can see a direct correlation between what they do and how the horse reacts, but the emotion that would usually come from interacting with a person is absent when you are dealing with a horse. You don’t have to “put a face on” when dealing with a horse and the talking flows better when you have a large, warm, confidence inspiring presence next to you in the shape of a horse! “When we have exams, and I am feeling worried, I just go to the stables and hug a pony and everything suddenly feels better.” said one of our Year 8 girls.

Now, I’m not trying to say that all the girls here at Hanford are struggling with their mental health, far from it, but the reality is that we all will be affected by mental health issues– if not directly ourselves, then through someone we love and the more we can do to understand ourselves and understand others is crucial to our future well being. Relationship struggles, whether relationships with ourselves, others, our environments, or our beliefs and emotions, are usually at the foundation of mental health issues. Horses provide an opportunity to heal those relationships and learn new skills that can support healthier interactions.

You don’t even have to ride to benefit from horses. In fact, the most positive effects come from groundwork and that is why we try to involve the girls in pony care as much as possible here at school. It helps that our horses are in our amazing Victorian stables in the heart of the school. Girls pop over at every break time to help out and hang out. They will be mucking out, grooming, feeding or just simply, being, with a pony. Through this contact time they will be strengthening relationship skills, building resilience, improving their decision-making, all leading to a strong feeling of self-worth.

Sending girls out into the world with these skills will help not just them, but those around them and this aspect of social responsibility is at the heart of what we try to do here at Hanford.

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