Toffee has his first walk in the Sensory Garden.
We all appreciate the simple pleasures of sniffing flowers, taking a stroll on the beach, or brushing a hand through long grass. But for many of the riders at Cotswold RDA, enjoying the sights, sounds, textures and smells of the world outside isn’t always as easy as that.
Now, with a patch of waste ground, some willing volunteers and a lot of creative vision, children and adults can enjoy a new sensory garden adventure as part of their weekly therapeutic riding lesson. Sensory stimulation is a vital part of helping us to make sense of the world around us. A huge amount of information is sent to the brain with every touch, sniff, sight and sound, and these days we understand much more about the benefits of this kind of experience for people with a learning or sensory disability.
“We are lucky enough to have some outside space, but we knew we weren’t using it to its best advantage,” Claire Jenkins, Charity Manager at Cotswold RDA, explains. “We decided to turn part of it into a garden that our ponies could be ridden through and allow the children to enjoy a variety of different sensory experiences.”
The garden has lots of different areas for riders to enjoy, and from the ground upwards, every element has been designed to deliver maximum impact. Among the riot of colour there is a beach, a farmyard, bird boxes, water features, painted tyres and plants galore. Different surfaces create different sounds as ponies walk over them; fragrant, tactile plants can be brushed past, and brightly painted scenery and props are a visual feast.
Creating the beach.
A local community group, Men in Sheds, helped to create the “beach”, finding old wooden boats, moving tonnes of sand, creating beach huts and even painting an old pipe to look like a lighthouse. Banana plants give an exotic twist and one of the old wooden boats will be planted with a bed of geraniums in candyfloss colours.
“It was a privilege to do this work for RDA,” Philip Johns of Men in Sheds said. “Our group is all about promoting health and wellbeing in old age and this project has been such a positive focus for our team.”
Before the launch of the garden, ponies like Toffee needed to get used to the new space. Just as the riders will benefit from the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the garden, there is quite a lot for the ponies to get excited about, too, so it is important for them to feel comfortable and secure.
Getting to know the garden.
“We have been familiarising all the ponies, including Toffee, with the different parts of the garden, so that they don’t get ‘spooked’ during RDA sessions,” Claire explains. “This involved firstly taking Toffee and his friends outside and standing them near the garden. Giving horses time to have a really good look at things is simple to do, but incredibly important.”
Once Toffee had been given sufficient time to take it all in, his trainers took him to each different part of the garden and allowed him time to get used to the new smells, sounds and bright colours.
“We have deliberately included lots of movement, such as water and rustling plants, and that kind of unpredictability can unnerve horses quite easily,” Claire explains. “By spending time near these elements, Toffee will learn that they are not scary so he won’t mind when he takes a rider past them.”
So how did Toffee get on?
“He didn’t put a hoof wrong!” Claire says. “In fact, I think he really enjoys it. He’s quite nosy by nature so he loves to get his head into all the different areas and see what’s what.”