Samantha Laurie looks at the inspirational work of a small Teddington riding stables, where 85% of riders are children with autism
On the surface, it has all the usual services for the urban rider – trial lessons, birthday party rides, horses on livery – but Park Lane Stables is no ordinary set-up. Most of the children who ride at this tiny Teddington yard have autism and its 21 ponies are cared for by a team that includes teenagers excluded from school, as well as adults with learning difficulties, all mucking in (and mucking out) alongside the local, horse-mad, pony brigade.
Each week, 150 children come for ‘horse therapy’ – a mix of occupational and speech therapy – in nearby Bushy Park.
“Horses have a magical effect on children with autism,” says owner Natalie O’Rourke. “The touch of the horse, and the rhythm of its motion, releases a hormone that reduces anxiety and helps them learn. But it’s tiny incremental steps. It can take weeks for an autistic child to feel comfortable with the noise and smell, or even wearing the helmet.”
Natalie’s approach is all about repetition and positive reinforcement.
“Many of the children are non-verbal so we do hand gestures as we say ‘1,2,3 walk’ and ‘3,2,1 stop’. We do this perhaps 20 times in a row. One of our children, a four-year-old girl, had never spoken but would sign. One day we got to ‘3’ and she suddenly said ‘Walk!’”
The sessions, which help strengthen core muscles and balance as well as communication skills, require three adult helpers per child. All are volunteers, including a physiotherapist who attends each child’s first lesson and an occupational therapist. There’s no waiting list for kids with autism – anyone who can be helped will be squeezed in. Some come with funding from local councils or charities such as Richmond AID, but no one is turned away for lack of money. Those with more severe physiotherapy needs can attend the new hippotherapy sessions at Richmond Park’s Holly Lodge. On Wednesdays there’s a social club for adults with learning difficulties.
All this is possible thanks to the astonishing dynamism of Natalie, a 41-year-old, marathon-running, bundle of energy and positivity who came to the then disused stables eight years ago from Birmingham, and applied to turn the former fire station site into a Riding for the Disabled Association outpost.
“I knew only that I wanted to work with horses in a way that was more than just riding lessons for wealthy kids,” she says.
She arrived with two ponies, no money and a husband who dropped her off at the door and told her he was leaving her.
“Fair to say, I didn’t have much support,” she laughs.
Her life continued to throw up complications. Four years ago, her second child, Woody, was born with Down’s Syndrome. Soon after, the stables was told it had to find £67,000 for repairs, or close. To raise funds, Natalie ran marathons and, last year, persuaded Princess Anne to reopen the renovated stables.
“Natalie is an astonishing character,” says Jane, mum to stable regular, 26-year-old Tom. “She makes things happen and she takes people with her. Everyone who knows her is inspired by her.”
She tells how, when the children were distraught over the death of a much-loved pony, Natalie persuaded the local vicar to hold a service to say goodbye to him, bringing into the church one of his horse friends and a parade of animals.
Life is a constant fundraising quest. Funding from Hampton garage H&L Motors has made possible the hippotherapy sessions but what’s most needed now is an indoor school.
“Many children cannot cope in bad weather,” says Natalie. “We ask everyone about land for an indoor school. We’ll get there eventually. It’s like The Shawshank Redemption: I’m always chipping away!”
- For more information visit http://parklanestables.co.uk