How Take the Reins is building resilience and shaping young people’s futures

Take The Reins harnesses the power of horses to improve young people’s mental health and well-being.  But none of this vital work would be possible without funding raised through The Health Lottery.

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Nikki Skinner is thinking about what it means to spend a pound on a ticket for The Health Lottery. 

She runs Take The Reins, a project that helps teenagers improve their mental health by being around horses. 

“I think people don’t realise the impact it has when they buy a ticket, but I couldn’t put a value on what it’s doing for our young people, not just now but for the rest of their lives,” she says. 

“It’s shaping their future. It’s more than that pound, it’s just everything.” 

Without funding raised through The Health Lottery, Nikki, 52, from Spennymoor, Co. Durham, wouldn’t be able to run the project, which is providing vital support to 12 teenagers, aged between 13 and 18, every week. 

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The group spend six hours a week with the horses at Nikki’s farm in Spennymoor, County Durham, a safe space for them to talk about their emotions, develop new skills and support each other.

“I’ve always had a love affair with horses, but work and life became a barrier, but anxiety and the general stresses of life led me back to riding in my 30s,” says Nikki, who set up the project after seeing how pupils at a local school were affected by the suicide of a schoolmate. 

“It had a profound effect on the other pupils and I knew that being around horses could have a positive impact on young people’s well-being so I set up a social enterprise to give local teenagers the chance to experience it.”

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When twelve youngsters on a school visit came along for a taster session and asked to return, they became the first group to benefit from Take The Reins. 

“These kids were struggling in school and they really thrived on spending time with the horses, so that became the foundation of this project,” says Nikki.

“The environment was already here, but funding raised through The Health Lottery allowed our staff to dedicate that extra time to the young people, build trust and go that extra mile for them. 

"So when they come here they can explore their emotions, become more resilient and try and overcome what’s preventing them from being the people they want to be.”   

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Now the group spend three hours after school and three on a Saturday morning looking after the horses and taking a break from the stresses of their week. 

Winter has been harsh at the farm, but the group has showed resilience and come in every week to look after the horses, whatever the weather. 

“About half of the children like to ride, but the others enjoy the stables side of it and they tell us that looking after the horses gives them a sense of pride and achievement. 

"When they’re bringing the horse into a nice clean stable, giving them a bucket of feed and sitting with them it’s quite therapeutic,” says Nikki, who uses the horses’ behaviour to open up conversations about social and emotional well-being.

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“We use the horses more as a platform. So we might have a young person who runs away when they feel threatened and we’ll do some work with a horse that we can’t catch, saying: ‘How does mum feel when you don’t come home?’ Or if a horse is going off on its own, we’ll ask if it’s lonely or needs some time out.”

The benefits of physically being with horses improve the group’s mental well-being and attending the sessions has given some of the young people the confidence they need to return to school. 

“When you’re with a horse, that's the only thing you can focus on because the big animals require 100 per cent of your attention, so it gives the kids a bit of respite from stresses of everyday life,” says Nikki. 

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“One young girl hasn’t been in school since before Covid and she was referred to our local children’s mental health unit, but couldn’t engage with her worker so they came here. 

"Being with the horses helped them gradually build a relationship and it had a massive impact on her life, allowing her to open up and access more therapy.

“There are so many disciplines that come with riding and looking after horses: building trust, learning different skills, making a connection with the horse and getting a real boost to your self-esteem when you achieve something. 

"Teenagers are still struggling with social skills, staying at home a lot and living their life on social media, but coming here helps unlock social opportunities.”

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Take The Reins

The current society benefitting from funds raised is LEW Health CIC T/A HL London East

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