Young people with a range of disabilities, all walking with guides and carers, or being pushed/driving themselves in wheelchairs, took part in what is one of the biggest outdoors adventure events for young people of all abilities in Britain today.
The ponies were the stars of the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust’s ‘Fresh Tracks’, an equine assisted learning programme for young people with a range of complex, challenging life issues – from both mainstream and special needs schools – to train to lead Dartmoor ponies across the open Moor.
In the end, it was not just the students who were helped by the ponies: Leader Dru Butterfield struggled with suspected cellulitis half way round the course and credits her students – and Dartmoor pony George – with ‘carrying’ her much of the way to enable her to complete the gruelling 15-mile trek.
Dru was not the only one overcoming health challenges on the day: professional photographer Malcolm Snelgrove, who has given his services free as a mentor and to photographically ‘diarise’ the entire training process, had a stroke in December 2017. He always said that getting to Fresh Tracks 2018 would be one of his primary goals during his recovery.
Many of the 12 students aged 14-16 from Ivybridge Community College and Ratcliffe School at Dawlish readily admitted that they would never have completed the event without the relationships built with – and motivation provided by – DPHT adoption and education ponies George and Smartie.
The training has been tough. Fresh Tracks has helped their personal development and enabled them to gain transferrable life skills in a way and in an environment that they might otherwise be unlikely to experience.
Students have undergone 10 weeks of intensive training to learn to handle the ponies; walking safely in the Moorland environment, first aid and teamwork.
Fresh Tracks has been created, coordinated and delivered by the Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT) at the request of the Army, as part of its ‘Ponies Inspiring People’ equine assisted learning programmes.
Says Dru Butterfield from DPHT: “The pressures on students are increasingly heavy and we are seeing more and more impact on their opportunity to learn and their motivation. Working with the ponies enables them to be more independent and to prove to themselves that they really CAN achieve if they set their minds to something.”
Fresh Tracks is a life changing experience for the students. One student said: “Every time we were training, I found it hard and sometimes I didn’t want to go at all. Today was exhausting but I could not let everyone down – or let myself down. If I don’t complete, they might not either. I am proud that I made it in the end and I am proud that I did something for myself.”
Teacher Caron Russell, Ten Tors Trainer at Ivybridge Community College said: “The change I have seen in these students is quite remarkable. Fresh Tracks has helped them with peer relationships and learning how to work as part of a team.”
Photos by Malcom Snelgrove