Earlier this summer, 18 teenagers with a range of challenging life issues from secondary and special needs schools in Devon, successfully completed a demanding trek leading Dartmoor ponies across nearly 14 miles of the toughest terrain on Dartmoor. Each one will readily admit that it was the ponies that gave them the skills, motivation and desire to complete.

Dartmoor Pony Heritage Trust (DPHT) ponies George, Rolo and Smartie, were the ‘platform for learning’ for the 10-week programme the teenagers worked through called ‘Fresh Tracks’ – culminating in them completing this new category at Ten Tors, one of the UK’s most demanding outdoor youth challenges, during which teams of young people navigate 35, 45 or 55 miles across Dartmoor over two days. Fresh Tracks was created and delivered by the DPHT as part of its ‘Ponies Inspiring People’ (PIP) equine assisted learning programme.

When you struggle to leave the house; when going to school becomes frightening; when communicating with other people is hard; when it’s difficult to see the future because the past sits so heavily on you; and when you are a teenager – taking on a personal, physical, emotional challenge like this could easily be too much. But through completing Fresh Tracks, these teenagers demonstrated a resilience they did not know they had and a determination most had rarely shown before.

Students underwent 10 weeks of intensive training to build their handling skills with ponies, walking safely in the Moorland environment, navigation, first aid and teamwork. They are supported by trained pony handlers, moorland guides, first aiders and their own schools’ staff, as well as members of the DPHT Volunteer Team.

Sam Battershall, Assistant Head at Teign Academy, sums it up: “The challenge that these young people faced and overcame is huge and gives them a sense of hope and ambition. It’s the proof they need that if they put their mind to something then they can achieve it. It builds resilience and mental strength as well as positive communication skills, overcoming fears and a true sense of team.”

Says Jo Mandeville of Ivybridge Community College: “Working with these very special Dartmoor ponies has helped our students to manage their emotions and raise their self-esteem by pushing them to handle situations that they would not normally find themselves in. The ponies were a vital part of the team; team ‘mentors’ in fact.”

Parents and carers welcomed the youngsters in and were in no doubt as to the benefits of Fresh Tracks. Said one: “My son is much calmer and has more self-control. This has built up his self-confidence and he is just a much happier boy – who is starting to mature. After so many years of worrying that he could ever cope with life, we are incredibly proud of him and believe he has skills now that will help him to go forward.”

Another parent said: “It has been an emotional day and a rollercoaster ride over the last few weeks. To overcome the nerves, the fears, the physical demands so that he can now show that he can control the pony and be responsible, we just never thought would be possible. But he has done it.”

And the students? “Instead of being on my Playstation all the time, I have been outside getting fitter! I don’t feel the ponies are judging me and measuring me, but encourage me. I almost packed it in and it has been hard work, but now I have finished and got my medals. I feel really good!”

“When it started, I felt like backing out but I realised I actually wanted to be with the ponies and to push myself, to push my limits, to get my medals and to do something for me. I wanted to be able to look back and remind myself that I did not give up, that I could be brave and that it is always worth trying.”

Some parents saw their child complete Fresh Tracks for a second time, after they took part in the Pilot project in 2016: “He had to cope with so many challenges – teamwork, staying away the night before, coping with day to day tasks and functions. Last year after FT he could then carry on taking on challenges – we went camping, he spent more time away with friends, organised himself better, dealt with the things he found hard. His endurance and ‘stickability’ is massively improved; he seems to have grown out of much of his anxiety. We have seen continuing improvement and a better attitude and confidence in every area.”

Says Dru Butterfield, in charge of Fresh Tracks for DPHT: “Delivering Fresh Tracks is an amazing team effort. We could not deliver this without the commitment of the schools, families/carers, our volunteer guides and support team members.

“By coping as well as they did with the pressures of Ten Tors, George, Rolo and Smartie are the perfect ambassadors for the Dartmoor pony. They make the difference to whether our students succeed or not, keeping going even when the terrain is at its toughest and giving the students something to focus on, to be responsible for and to feel they are working in partnership.

“Successfully leading some 300kg of pony across open moor gives students confidence and self-belief – and this is reflected in their home life and at school. Feedback has been that the impact is also much longer term.”

The primary aims of the DPHT are to preserve and promote the Dartmoor pony on Dartmoor – now on the ‘endangered breed’ list – and to promote its temperament, so encouraging people to buy them as all round family ponies and for conservation grazing.

For further information about its work to preserve the Dartmoor pony on Dartmoor, and its ‘Ponies Inspiring People’ programmes, including ‘Fresh Tracks’, please see our website – dpht.co.uk or call 01626 833234.

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