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‘A lot of kids are stuck sitting down at school all day and it doesn’t work for them. It just doesn’t’

Hannah Morgan is a therapeutic riding coach in Festina Lente, Co Wicklow

I started riding aged eight. I never had my own horses, but I got so much benefit from helping out at stables as a child. I went to university and studied Spanish and French and went on to do law, but I quickly found out it wasn’t for me. I was living in the city and wasn’t getting the benefit of being outside with the horses and I noticed a decline in my wellbeing.

I decided to give myself six months to do something I really wanted to do, so I went and volunteered with a riding-for-the-disabled organisation. I started to see how much it was benefiting me being around horses and how much it benefited kids.

I could see what was happening, but I didn’t know the science behind it. Why was this child who was pre-verbal suddenly saying ‘Woah’ or ‘Go’? I thought, I have to make sure I have the training to provide these clients with what they need. That’s when I made the decision to come to Festina Lente in Wicklow and study on their therapeutic riding course. Then I studied equine-assisted learning and disability awareness. After the course, I was offered a job here.

Therapeutic riding is working with the movement of the horse to provide therapeutic benefit. I work with people from two years of age right up to 76. Some people come for the physical benefits. The movement of a horse mimics the human pelvis, so a person who uses a wheelchair is receiving movement they may not get naturally. The warmth from the horse can help with relaxing muscles, too.


A lot of kids are stuck sitting down at school all day and it doesn’t work for them. It just doesn’t. They come out almost vibrating because they have been sitting for so long. We are ready for them. We have kids on the autism spectrum who might struggle with waiting and impulse control. We have clients with mental health challenges. Trying something new can be really challenging. But there is no rush; we take things slowly. What’s brilliant about horses is they invite us to slow down. Festina Lente means “hasten slowly”.

Horses have a naturally lower heartbeat than humans, so when we are around horses our heartbeat can actually lower. It’s called co-regulation – if you have a relaxed horse, you are going to have a relaxed person. We work with a lot of kids with sensory-processing issues. As soon as they get up on the horse, you just see them breathe out. Some of the kids are tactile-seeking, and being able to just have their hands on a horse is so comforting. You can see relaxation on their faces. You can see the relaxation of their parents.

Horses are prey animals, so they are hyper-vigilant. They are continuously reading our behaviour – how we approach them, our subtle movements. Obviously the horses are non-speaking, and some of our clients are non-verbal, and it’s almost like there is a common ground there.

There is such a disconnect between us and our natural environment now. Everyone is continuously overstimulated. If you are approaching a horse in a way that isn’t mindful or present, they will give you that feedback and draw you into their space.

A lot of kids will develop really strong relationships with the horses. They will ask, “What did Thor do today? Who was he in the field with? Is he still best friends with Henry?” It’s lovely. The horses provide so many opportunities for communication.

Our horses have time to go out and see their friends in the field. We keep them in herds. They have continuous food, and we try to enrich their workload so they are not doing one thing all the time. It is really important to emphasise the sentience of the horse. The horse is here, the horse is incredible and is providing this therapeutic effect, but the horse also has a name. They are loved. They have friendships with other horses. We really do value the horse so much.

I moved here so I could work with horses in a way that prioritises their wellbeing. It can be hard to find somewhere that does that. The equine industry can be a tough place. I am very lucky that I am there for some of the clients’ milestones. That could be their first word. I worked with a really lovely client for a while: he was only two or three, and his name was Georgie. He was pre-verbal and by the end of it, he was saying, ‘Walk on, Dukey’ and ‘Thank you, Hannah’.

It was just unbelievable. Duke is a very special horse, and he was able to provide regulation through his movement that helped Georgie to make connections to start to express himself through language. I would call it a magic moment when everything just clicks. When it comes together for both the horse and the rider, the word I use is “harmony”. That’s when it’s most rewarding for me.

In conversation with Joanne Hunt