He had never seen a horse before, and little did Daniel Sadely know, as he reluctantly entered a stable for the first time, that the four- legged creatures would change his life.
Back in 2011, the 16-year-oldwas among a group of students from Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary sent to the Equal (Equine-assisted learning) programme.
Equal was started in 2011 by local equestrian community Equestrian Federation of Singapore to help students work with and ride horses. The programme's main sponsor this year is the Tote Board.
Mr Sadely, who was then retaking Secondary 3 and has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, initially thought the programme a waste of time. Spending time with the horses changed his mind.
"Before, the comments from my teachers were all bad stuff," he said. "But when I was taking care of the horses I started to realise, however rough or tough I am, deep inside me there are parts that are still nice. I realised I was not all bad."
Equal put Singapore on the equestrian map recently when it won this year's Solidarity Award at the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI). The FEI is the world governing body for equestrian sports and has a membership of 133 countries.
The international award, which was given out in Baku, Azerbaijan, on Sunday, recognises an equestrian development project, individual or organisation that has demonstrated skill and energy in expanding equestrian sport.
Equal is the first Singaporean candidate to win an FEI award. Equal chairman Melissa Tan, 42, said: "It's a significant win for us, as Singapore is such a non-equestrian country."
Since its inception, Equal has worked with about 800 students, and hopes to bring in 400 more next year - double the usual yearly intake.
Most are aged 12 to 14 and struggling in school. Some may come from broken homes or have suffered abuse. Equal also works with groups such as juvenile delinquents and people with mental health issues.
The three-hour sessions, which take place at the National Equestrian Centre (NEC) stables in Jalan Mashhor, can range from grooming the horses to leading them around and riding them.
Ms Tan said: "For kids who have been abused or been in gangs, they usually have a wall, they're very defensive. But when they're with the horse or with us, their guard comes down. They tell us stuff they wouldn't tell their counsellor or psychiatrist."
Mr Daniel Koh, a psychologist at Insights Mind Centre, said animals of a gentle nature, such as horses, can help troubled individuals improve their self-confidence and self-assurance.
"The person is not forced to speak, but rather has some comforting physical touch," said Mr Koh.
"This provides a stress-free environment to learn, explore and improve. Plus the animal is more forgiving."
According to surveys that Equal conducts with the students' schools before and after the programme, the students improve by an average of 67.8 per cent in measurable life skills such as impulse control, responsible risk-taking and flexible thinking.
Ms Tan said that next year, Equal will be working with the National Institute of Education to continue research on the programme's effectiveness.
As for Mr Sadely, his time with Equal has instilled in him a love for horses. He is halfway through national service, and he intends to return to NEC to work with horses there after he is done.
"My love of the horses grew from nothing to something," he said.
This article was first published on December 19, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.