NHS Lothian has taken the reins to celebrate 10 years of working with East Lothian’s Muirfield Riding Therapy (MRT), providing the first and still largest service of its kind in Scotland, a specialised form of physiotherapy on horseback called hippotherapy.

Pioneered by NHS Lothian children’s physiotherapist Heather Falconer and MRT service co-ordinator Susan Law, hippotherapy delivers a therapeutic riding service to children and young people with disabilities.

Heather said: “We set up this partnership between NHS Lothian and MRT officially 10 years ago; we’re very excited about it!

“It’s for children from about two to 18, the majority of whom have neurological conditions.

“What riding therapy is really good at is giving you core stability, balance, co-ordination and motor planning.”

Heather, a rider herself, volunteered with Riding for the Disabled as a teenager, before taking up a career as a children’s physiotherapist. She also volunteered at MRT, based at West Fenton.

Having seen the benefits of hippotherapy, she brought her own patients from Edinburgh’s Royal Hospital for Sick Children to MRT, before an official partnership was set up in 2010.

Heather said: “It’s a real, symbiotic, two-way partnership. It’s not just that we use their premises.

“Muirfield provide the premises, the horses, the volunteers and a lot of the training, whereas we provide the hippotherapist and patients. What we get is really high-quality, what would normally be expensive therapy for just the cost of a physiotherapist coming out for an afternoon.”

Susan said: “MRT started in a muddy field but gradually we’ve become more sophisticated and when we work with physios we can measure outcomes.

“We’re really at the forefront of working with physiotherapists; and the principles we learn from the NHS physiotherapists cascade down into our other sessions.”

In addition to the 10 ponies that work at MRT is a specialist mechanical horse which has been named Oreo by the MRT team and has been in use since 2017.

Linked to a screen that shows scenic views, Oreo also responds to leg and hand movements like a real horse would.

Heather said: “It’s very different. There are pluses and minuses for both the mechanical horse and the real ponies; the real ponies are less predictable, so the pattern they give you can be different when it comes to adapting to children’s different needs. But there’s the bond that the children have with the real ponies; there’s a real emotional element to working with real horses.

“With Oreo, we can push the children harder, partly because it’s on the spot so we’re right next to them, and we can ask them to canter, which we can’t do when they’re on a live pony because we can’t keep up!”

Charlie Kay, a 13-year-old from North Berwick who attends the town’s high school, has been using the hippotherapy service at MRT for 10 years.

Charlie, who has cerebral palsy, said: “It’s hard work and it’s quite strenuous but I love the ponies.

“Riding Oreo is not the same because you don’t press a button to get a real pony to stop – but you can get that feeling of riding a pony on Oreo.

“It’s getting my whole body a lot stronger and I feel a bit better afterwards because I’ve exercised.”

Mum Mel added: “At the start of an eight-week block they measure Charlie’s walking pattern, and at the end of the block the difference in walking pattern is so much better.

“It’s really stretching him and is really good for his hips and pelvis, all the areas that need to be stretched.

“I notice a massive difference in his core.”

Heather said: “To master walking with crutches, Charlie needs a lot more core stability, better balance and more symmetry than he has.

“Oreo is modelling a normal human walking pattern for him so all the muscle receptors that he’s got are telling him what the pattern is that he’s walking with. It’s a sensory experience of a normal walking pattern.”

MRT, a member group of Riding for the Disabled UK, celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. To find out more, go to muirfieldridingtherapy.org.uk