HMP Thameside sends in the horses

Since September 2020, HMP Thameside has welcomed a total of five horses and five equine specialists into the prison grounds.

Every Tuesday, two horses and three members of staff from the North London charity, Strength and Learning Through Horses, have provided sessions to 12 Thameside residents aged between 18 and 25. Working in groups of four, these young men have completed sessions in Communication, Leadership, Body language, Building trust, Understanding signs of stress, Horse movement, Horse psychology and Horse care, including types of feed and grooming.

The Forensic Psychology team at HMP Thameside conceptualised the project in the latter part of 2019 with the aim of extending provision to Young Adult offenders (18-to-25-year olds) and offering them purposeful and constructive activity whilst in the prison.

There is considerable research looking at the benefits of working with horses. Benefits include increased emotional awareness, improved mental health and life skills development in areas such as communication, teamwork and physical activity. The prison sought to support a group which is frequently involved in gangs, acts of violence and antisocial behaviour characterised in their lives both inside and outside of prison. The plan was to run a pilot project, as a 10-week programme for 12 individuals, in the late spring and summer of 2020. Unfortunately, the prison had to follow the nation-wide lockdown in late March and so the project was put on hold.

However, as lockdown restrictions eased, plans were in place to reopen certain activities but with health, safety and social distancing measures paramount. As an outdoor activity with an educational underpinning, the Director approved the reinstatement of the Horses Project with 22 September as the start date – cue some frantic preparation!

Following the prolonged period of lockdown, the project, which involves working outside with animals, proved very popular and we received a large number of applicants. Referrals for the project came from staff, although residents could also self-refer. Some had worked with horses before, whilst others thought it appeared interesting and a chance to try something new. A few admitted that they saw it as an opportunity to get some time out of their cell after nine months of restrictions. Although we assessed individual motives, the project aimed to target those whose custodial behaviour was less than exemplary and who, consequently, often missed out on opportunities to take part in prison schemes.

All participants have spoken positively about the experience and many profess to now becoming delighted horse whisperers! Moreover, as well as having the opportunity to be involved in such a novel activity (although horses in prisons is not new, the drafting of and commitment to a 10-week programme certainly was), on completing the programme, the participants will receive a formal qualification from AQA in ‘Understanding Horse Psychology’ and ‘Employability and Horsemanship’; several of the participants are very excited about this prospect.

To measure the value of the project, research is being conducted alongside it. The research aims to establish if the programme has had an impact on the emotional awareness of the participants as well as on their custodial behaviour and positive engagement in other services. As the project has not yet finished, the research is ongoing. However, results of the study will be available in the early part of 2021.