By William Lailey and Aliki Kraterou
A group of primary school kids were thrilled when their teachers swapped their usual PE lessons for saddling up ponies and learning dressage – in an abandoned old cinema in Toxteth.
The Park Palace Ponies offer free pony riding classes for the Year 4 students of Lawrence Community Primary School, in an old cinema near the infamous area of Toxteth, Liverpool.
The innovotive project – funded by the volunteer directors – aims to offer to children an alternative PE lesson and help introduce them to a pastime they may otherwise not have had chance to experience.
The excited eight and nine year olds visit the ponies every Friday afternoon, and learn a lot about pony care, different breeds, grooming and of course riding skills.
Andy McCormick, PE Lead of Lawrence Community Primary School takes the Year 4 students every week for pony PE lessons.
He said: “Our school is in a low socioeconomic area and pony riding is something the majority of our children would never get to do.
“Many of our children come from challenging backgrounds, they start off at a disadvantage and are always playing catch up so anything that sparks their interest and really captures their imagination is wonderful to see.
“Many just aren’t into mainstream sports like football and cricket so I wanted to help them try something a bit different.
“Being where we are, this is something they wouldn’t normally get the chance to do and we fund everything so everyone gets the opportunity to join in if they want to.
“I have so many stories about children who have benefited from the lessons.
“One pupil was an elective mute and rarely communicated at school. Yet on the very first day at Park Palace Ponies she was chatting, shouting across to the other children and really engaging.
“As a school I am so proud of what we have achieved. We are always looking for new and diverse ways of keeping our children interested and we have seen an improvement in attendance too.
“It has so many benefits and to see their confidence and self-esteem rocketing is so rewarding.
“The smiles on their faces make it one of the most fulfilling things I have ever done.
“It brings me a great deal of satisfaction and joy.”
Kath Murray, a Year 4 class teacher added: “I have a little bit of a background on pony riding, so I thought it sounded like a really good idea and I was happy to be involved.
“It’s fantastic, – it builds up their confidence and they learn a lot about pony care.
“The children absolutely love it- we have had some children who are now in Year 5 and have carried on and signed up for riding lessons.
“I think it’s fantastic for the children to have this opportunity, being in the city.
“It’s also great for our curriculum because we have now been able to bring in this part about science- we are linking it with what they have learnt in the riding classes.
“It has been a very positive experience, we have had a lot of different children but riding has been very inclusive, they all enjoy it. “
And even though the project started as a six – month pilot scheme , it is still going strong three years later, due to it’s success.
More than a 100 volunteers help to take care of the eight ponies, as they are a big part of the Dingle community.
Bridget Griffin, 24, one of the five directors said: “We all have a background or a relationship with horses and we are well aware of all the benefits horses can offer so for us was to bring back those benefits to the city- we know how inaccessible horse riding is for people who don’t live in the city .
“We first came up with the idea in 2010 but it took us 7 years to plan everything – our aim was to make horses more accessible and place them in an urban environment.
“Obviously Liverpool is a dockside town and in the late 1960s horses were used every day on the docks- we are only situated very close to the docks so putting the horses back in the city hasn’t been that shocking, especially for the older generation.
“There is a real passion to horse riding, it’s similar to going home to your dog after a long day, it’s thrill and you are building a relationship with an animal that is 10 times your size.
“It’s so good for the confidence of children, I know it myself because I was very shy when I first started and now I have all these friends of all different ages, we are all a big horsey family.
“What we want to see is a Park Palace ponies in all cities , especially now that we are working closely with the schools.
“We would love for people to duplicate the project and perhaps do something similar in their own city. “