Dartmoor ponies George, Lark and Chatty, help teenagers succeed at one of the UK's toughest youth challenges
The Annual Ten Tors event on Dartmoor, Devon, UK, is credited with being 'the making' of thousands of young people over the years, who have faced all sorts of personal challenges and used their skills of teamwork, navigation, safety and fitness, to walk across one of the toughest environments in the Country.
This year saw the piloting of a potential new category when three Dartmoor ponies - which help to form that very environment and are synonymous with the landscape - helped sixteen teenagers to 're-form' their minds and hearts and take their new skills and 'can do' attitudes back to home and school life.
'Fresh Tracks', for young adults with a range of challenging life issues from both mainstream and special needs schools, was created, coordinated and delivered by the Equine Assisted Learning section at the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust, called 'Ponies Inspiring People'. It came about following an approach from the Army, as part of its aim to provide additional opportunities for youth, because of DPHT's reputation for using ponies to help young people to overcome anxiety and gain resilience, self-belief and transferable skills for life.
"My son was frightened of even going out of the front door. Since working with the ponies, he is now able to walk the dogs, go to the local shop and hold a conversation with anyone we meet", said one parent.
"The change is incredible: he is so much more confident and comfortable with life; he is taking responsibility for himself and getting prepared for the day ahead; he doesn’t get so stressed and worried about every little thing that might happen. Our family life has improved so much you wouldn’t believe", said another parent.
"The students have benefited from the closeness, unconditional love and attention from the ponies. Their response has been very positive and they show resilience to new situations with skills that are transferable into everyday life situations" according to a head teacher.
"Two months ago, if I had suggested to these lads that we do a 10 mile walk on Dartmoor, they would have laughed at me, but in school we started to see a bit more enthusiasm, a bit more positiveness and self control. Today they didn't just walk up and down the Tors of Dartmoor, they climbed mountains - in their minds - and came back asking to do it again" said an assistant head teacher.
And from one student: "I love the ponies. I didn't think I could do any of this, I didn’t want to do it. Now I don't want it to stop."
Sixteen students from Teign and Ivybridge Secondary Schools and a combined group from Ratcliffe and Oakland Park Special Needs Schools at Dawlish, along with teaching and support staff, DPHT volunteers and Moorland Guides, trained over 8 weeks to prepare for the demanding 10 mile trek.
Says Dru Butterfield of the DPHT:" Delivering 'Fresh Tracks' has been an amazing team effort. The schools have made huge commitments to bringing students to training sessions, including weekend walks; the students and their families/carers have shown incredible determination and enthusiasm - we cannot praise them highly enough; and our volunteer guides and support team members have been invaluable. Malcolm Snelgrove has followed the entire journey with his cameras and enabled us to hold every memory; our 'Fresh Tracks' Tshirts were given by Dewerstone Outdoor Living; much of the outdoor clothing was provided by Rohan, Gift your Gear and by friends, including the Army; and Stringer Equine vets have been there just in case."
Says Lieutenant Colonel Peter Bates of HQ SW Region and the lead organiser for Ten Tors: "The Army firmly believes in providing opportunities for young people, which is one reason the we organise the Ten Tors event. We are delighted to be working with DPHT and to being even more inclusive through 'Fresh Tracks'. These youngsters worked hard to get here and deserve the chance to shine, as well as gaining new skills and a real sense of self pride".
Dru concluded:" We must also give full credit to the temperament of the Dartmoor ponies, Skylark and Stonechat, loaned by volunteer Sue Parrott of Chagford, and our own DPHT pony George. Typically stoic and gentle, but also tough and resilient, they seem to be able to share these attributes with the students."
It is hoped that the 'Fresh Tracks' event, piloted this year, can be extended and become a regular element of Ten Tors. Accessing the vast spaces and additional challenges that Dartmoor presents for students working with ponies will definitely continue as part of the DPHT's 'Ponies Inspiring People' programmes; the results have been remarkable.