Autistic children enjoy feel-good factor at Equitots

Pony lessons...are a breeze for Ben Ireland and his mum Louise, pictured here with Chico and Lee.
Pony lessons...are a breeze for Ben Ireland and his mum Louise, pictured here with Chico and Lee.

Combining her love of horses and her desire to help children, Lee Valantine launched Equitots in Carluke in April this year.

Initially, she had hoped to help disadvantaged children but too much red tape saw her changing tack.

Social enterprise...Equitots was launched in Carluke in April 2017 by Lee Valantine to help autistic children and their families by using the Horse boy Method. Lee is one of only two instructors in this method in Scotland.

Social enterprise...Equitots was launched in Carluke in April 2017 by Lee Valantine to help autistic children and their families by using the Horse boy Method. Lee is one of only two instructors in this method in Scotland.

So Lee is now focusing on helping youngsters on the autism spectrum and their families – using her ponies, Chico and Zeta, to develop the youngsters’ confidence and life skills.

So how did the business planning manager with North Lanarkshire Council come up with the idea for the not for profit scheme?

Lee explained: “I did my Solihill Approach training last year which explored how children learn things through being nurtured – so if they cry a certain way, they know they’ll get picked up.

“Sadly, not all children are lucky enough to have that kind of nurturing.

Horseback riding...opens up the mind and enables youngsters to then take part in fun activities, like horseshoe-making.

Horseback riding...opens up the mind and enables youngsters to then take part in fun activities, like horseshoe-making.

“I thought it would be good to do something with my horses to help nurture disadvantaged children.

“It would tie together my passion for horses and my desire to help children.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of red tape for children in care – but that’s when I found the Horse Boy Method.”

It was founded by Rupert Isaacson, quite by chance, when he discovered his autistic son, Rowan, had an affinity with horses.

Rowan had been non-verbal before getting into the saddle with his dad – but went on to learn how to speak, read and do maths while on horseback.

And in 2010, Rupert and Horse Boy co-director Iliane Lorenz started teaching others how to do it.

Lee has now trained in the method and is one of just two Horse Boy instructors in Scotland.

She said: “Rupert and his wife Kristin discovered that moving on horseback released the feel-good hormone oxytocin.

“If you put a child on horseback it produces that hormone and opens their mind far more than it would be in a classroom.”

Lee is also a qualified riding instructor, with an industry qualification from the British Horse Society.

She juggles Equitots with a full-time day job at the council and family life on her Yieldshields smallholding.

Her husband Mark is a tree surgeon who also works for North Lanarkshire Council and their son, Rory (10), is a pupil at Braidwood Primary School.

Lee runs sessions four times a week – on Wednesday and Thursday night, as well as two sessions on Saturdays and Sundays.

There’s a small waiting list for the service which six families are currently enjoying weekly for just £15 per session – this cost covers insurance premiums and the upkeep of one of the ponies.

And Equitots has also harnessed local support, with South Lanarkshire Council’s renewable energy fund stumping up cash for an eco loo and learning hut and Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership funding Forest Leader training for Lee next month.

She said: “It’s fantastic to receive this support from the council and CAVLP.

“The learning hut will have a car port so if it’s really wet, we can take a pony into the covered area – we’re going to be all weather really!

“I’ve been using my kitchen and the hay shed for some sessions with the children – such as horseshoe making and colouring in.

“The kids love sitting on the haybales but to have a dedicated, warm and watertight area for this work will be fantastic.

“While Equitots is focused on helping children with autism, the sessions are for the whole family so brothers and sisters and mums and dads also muck in.

“The loo and hut are now on order so should be here in about three weeks time. It will be wonderful to have dedicated facilities to accommodate everyone.

“And the Forest Leader training from CAVLP is brilliant too as I’ll soon have a professional qualification to back up classroom activity work that I’m doing now.”

Equitots main focus is, of course, the children enjoying sessions on the ponies – 15-year-old Chico, who is 12 hands and four-year-old Zeta, who is 15 hands.

And the wee ones particularly love the American Western saddle, complete with horns.

Lee added: “It’s got a big, deep saddle which they hardly move in and horns at the front so it’s really secure.

“One non-verbal wee boy has now started saying moo to the cows as we pass.

“He doesn’t usually interact but he gave me flowers we’d picked for his mum – she was amazed.

“The difference the sessions are making is phenomenal.”

One-to-one family sessions

Equitots has been set up, initially, to help children on the autism spectrum, although Lee would love to expand in future to help even more youngsters.

Ponies provide a natural opportunity to overcome fear and develop confidence.

So the experience gained while attending sessions gives children an insight into how to deal with other intimidating and challenging life situations.

Lee said: “It provides children with space to explore safely, be themselves and build relationships on an equal footing.

“The ponies carry children into the exterior world and fill them with the feel good hormone created by movement, oxytocin. This hormone has a calming influence on the nervous system and allows the brain to engage.”

Equitots uses one-to-one pony sessions with individual families and their children to help improve sensory skills.

Relationships built with the ponies also helps to support learning and improved health and well-being.

And it’s all done in a safe place where children can grow in confidence by learning and developing new skills.

Lee added: “Equitots Lanarkshire offers a safe, natural ‘yes’ environment for children to explore, ask questions, be involved and independent.

“Their time here can be spent playing, running and enjoying the freedom of a safe environment to explore.

“Brothers and sisters are also welcome to join in the activities and work with the ponies at no additional cost.”

Sessions cost £15 for 45 minutes per family. Around two thirds of the session time is spent with ponies.

For more information, visit www.equitots.com, email Lee@equitots.com or call 07823 331126.