Horses help ground and motivate youth at risk

Horses help ground and motivate youth at risk
Equal programme chairman Melissa Tan showing NorthLight student Seetoh Kang Sheng, 13, how to enter a stable calmly.

Horses here are helping troubled young people here to find their feet.

A three-year pilot programme using horses to help those with low self-esteem or behavioural problems has already seen good results.

A study last year found that participants had improved in mental habits such as persistence since taking part in the programme, which ran from 2011 until January this year.

Called Equine-Assisted Learning (Equal) and run by the Equestrian Federation of Singapore (EFS), it worked so well that it was extended from two schools to at least three more groups this year.

About 600 students from NorthLight School and Assumption Pathway School - specialised schools here for students who failed their Primary School Leaving Examination - took part in the pilot.

This year, besides NorthLight School, students from Northland Secondary, Joan Bowen Cafe, which hires people with special needs, and the Singapore Association for Mental Health are taking part.

Young people in this therapy scheme learn how to ride horses as well as how to clean and interact with them. They also get tips on how to perform tasks such as leading a horse through an obstacle course.

The aim of the $632,000 pilot - funded partly by Temasek Cares, the philanthropic arm of Temasek Holdings - was to help the youngsters become confident and responsible, among other things.

It was also funded by T-Touch, Temasek Holdings' volunteerism and donation initiative, and the TrailBlazer Foundation, a charity chaired by its chief executive, Ms Ho Ching.

This year's programmes are being funded by Temasek Cares and other donors such as the Tote Board.

Temasek Cares chairman Richard Magnus said he learnt of the "therapeutic and rehabilitative potential of horses" from former NorthLight principal Chua Yen Ching. The latter noticed that some students who had taken horse riding as a co-curricular activity later became more motivated in school.

The pilot was successful on various fronts.

According to an EFS report obtained by The Straits Times, researchers studied the mental habits of 157 NorthLight students - 75 who took part in Equal and a group of 82 who did not.

School teachers and programme facilitators, including a psychologist, gave each student scores for five "habits of mind" - persisting, thinking flexibly, taking responsible risks, managing impulsivity, and listening with understanding and empathy - in the first and 13th weeks of the programme, and compared the scores. They were defined and measured according to a set scale, said researcher Jade Kua of KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH).

They found that, after the pilot, students who took part in Equal improved by an average of 67.8 per cent in their scores for mental habits, and also scored better than those in the control group. Said EFS president Melanie Chew: "With such a dramatic improvement in their habits of mind, they will have a far higher chance of success later in life."

The study was conducted by the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, the Institute of Mental Health and KKH.

NorthLight principal Martin Tan said his students look forward to taking part in Equal, and they get to learn in a "fun and interactive way". Since 2011, the scheme has become part of the curriculum for all Year 1 students at the school.

Housewife Eleanor Lim, 43, said her daughter, NorthLight student Teo Jing Wen, 13, had become more responsible since spending time with horses.

"She now takes the initiative in helping out with the household chores, and is more responsible in looking after our pet dog," she noted.

Said NorthLight student Shavonne Sherrell Surash, 13: "I was afraid of horses at first, but I've gained more confidence since riding and playing with them."

goyshiyi@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 05, 2014.
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