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Health Minister and Chief Vet Visit Unique Equine Project

7th October 2021

Health Minister Robin Swann MLA and Dr Robert Huey, Chief Veterinary Officer, have visited the Southern Trust to see how connecting with horses can help people with a learning disability.

Funded by the Department of Health, the pilot programme is the first of its kind within health and social care in Northern Ireland.

Through equine facilitated therapy, young adults with a forensic history and a range of other communications and sensory issues are benefitting from greater engagement, improved behaviour and better social functioning.

The Southern Trust was the first in Northern Ireland to set up a Community Adult Learning Disability Forensic Service and is the only Trust to offer day time opportunities to adults with a learning disability who need forensic support through the ARC (Animal Rehoming Centre) in Bessbrook.

Based at Narrow Water Castle, Warrenpoint, the equine facilitated therapy project is an extension of this service.

The day opportunities team along with an occupational therapist, speech and language therapist and psychologist work together to tailor the programme to suit each participant’s needs and ability.  It may include grooming, feeding, looking after the horse, ground work and either assisted or independent riding to suit individual therapeutic needs.

Occupational Therapist, Eveline Milne developed the programme in conjunction with Narrow Water Equestrian, having completed the regional Equine Facilitated Therapy pilot course for Allied Health Professionals (AHPs). This pilot course has since led to the development of a Post Graduate module in Equine Facilitated Therapy through the University of Ulster.

Welcoming the Minister to Narrow Water Castle to meet staff and services users involved, Southern Trust Chair Eileen Mullan said:

“This project is just another example of how our very forward thinking forensic team always go above and beyond to bring out the very best in their service users.

“There is increasing interest in the use of equine-based interventions for Autistic Spectrum Disorder, with a range of studies advocating the use of therapeutic riding. Set in these very beautiful, tranquil surroundings, this programme is showing some excellent outcomes for participants. By learning new skills and finding a different interest, they are benefitting both physically and socially, gaining confidence and independence which they are applying back to their daily lives.”

Health Minister Robin Swann said:

“I am delighted to get the opportunity to see and hear how this Equine project has helped individuals. There is an ever increasing awareness of the benefits that animals including horses can make connecting with people with physical and mental health issues. The project has highlighted how equine interventions can be highly effective in facilitating mainstream AHP therapy outcomes. It shows how a range of equine therapeutic activities can provide both valuable mainstream and complementary therapy that takes a whole person approach to treating the person not just physically but also emotionally, leading to improved health and wellbeing.”

Dr Robert Huey Chief Veterinary Officer for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs added:

“I am very supportive of this initiative, which was complimentary to the Equine Strategy planned for Northern Ireland.  The Equine Strategy is being developed through cross-government collaboration, building on the findings of the ‘Deloitte Report’ that identified equine assisted therapy and learning as a key area with the potential for growth. I want to thank the Southern Health and Social Care Trust for making this Pilot possible and hope that the lessons learned can be applied elsewhere across NI.”

The team are keen to further develop and mainstream the pilot to benefit more service users through a range of therapeutic activities.