Over recent months, within The Donkey Sanctuary’s Donkey Assisted Therapy centres - one of the charity’s primary focuses alongside the welfare of donkeys and mules - there have been significant changes set in motion. After 40 years of donkey assisted riding therapy operating essentially as its founder Elisabeth Svendsen imagined it, our programme is getting a beneficial ‘make over’.
The Donkey Sanctuary has recently trialled and introduced a new Heuristic programme, which in essence sees the children who attend spending a little less time on the back of a donkey, but significantly more time - each session time slot has more than doubled - interacting and engaging with the donkeys. This ‘heuristic’ approach will see children learn through experiencing and discovering things about the donkeys through hands-on interaction with the donkeys. But why change something that has worked so well for so long at all?
In my last blog I spoke about the benefits of donkey assisted therapy - through the eyes of a parent and carer to our daughter Grace - and today I want to tell you about another rider from here at our Centre in Leeds. We have talked about Alexander before - through our Centre’s social media - but I thought his story was deserving of a more significant word count, and told to you by the person who knows him best.
Alexander's world changed for the better
"My son Alexander has autism. He was diagnosed at 3½ years old, when I was told that he probably wouldn't achieve much. To say I was devastated was an understatement, but like plenty of other parents of children with additional needs I refused to give up. Alexander didn't speak until he was nearly 5, or really interact with others at all, but he was a happy and content in his own little world.
Alexander first started coming to the Centre in 2005, visiting every Tuesday with his school. When he first attended he would not even go in the arena, as strange places used to really freak him out. But when he was finally persuaded to go in and see the donkeys his world changed for the better. The donkeys didn't care if he could speak or not, they just wanted to be fussed and to be loved - just like he did. He didn't have to ‘fit in’, he could just be himself.
At the Centre he learnt so many lessons that have enriched his life, he learnt to take turns, and follow instructions. But the biggest lesson he learnt was how to ‘join in’ and interact with others. This is something most autistic children find extremely hard, and as Alexander had very little speech he didn't know how to join in or to interact appropriately. With the donkeys he felt relaxed, he could interact with them in his own way and they loved him and he loved them. Alexander showed great improvement in concentration at school - he was less restless as he knew that to go to the donkeys he had to try his best, both at home but especially at school.
The time Alexander spent at the Centre not only enriched his life but his family’s also, and he was more than a little sad when he was too old to go with his school. His love for the donkeys - especially William D - is still with him today. Alexander has achieved far more than he was ever expected to, thanks to the early lessons he learnt at the Leeds centre all those years ago: He has 3 GCSEs including a grade B in art; he is a proud scout; we went to Switzerland in 2014 and slept in a mountain hut and tubed down the River Aare from Utigen to Berne; and he has a Bronze Duke of Edinburgh award
Alexander will be 21 on 31 March 2016. He has come so far from the frightened little boy who came to the Centre all those years ago. He is living proof that supporting a great cause such as The Donkey Sanctuary does make a difference to a person's life. On Friday, Alexander and I did the ‘I Love Donkeys’ experience and he had his beloved William D to look after - the donkey who was so instrumental in coaxing the frightened little boy all those years ago, assuring him that to be himself and to be different was OK.
Thank you to all the staff, volunteers, and especially the donkeys for believing in my son and helping him become the person he is today. He has come a long way from being a child rider to an adult helper, who loves to be around the donkeys - especially with his Pops who began as a volunteer to pay back all the support the Centre gave his grandson all those years ago, and who now works alongside the team at The Donkey Sanctuary, Leeds.
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts Donna & Alexander xxxx”
So back to my opening question - Why change something that has worked so well for so long?. Well simply, it is because of our ongoing commitment to children like Alexander. We have - as documented by parents and carers, not through our own assumptions - done a great job, but we can do even better. As Donna highlighted, Alexander was sad when he could no longer ride, but as is also clearly evident in her lovely story, riding was not instrumental in Alexander’s progress, it was the interaction - the connection - with the donkey.
I have to admit, as a parent of a child who benefitted so greatly from the actual ‘riding therapy’ here at The Donkey Sanctuary, Leeds I was a little dubious about the new programme when it was put to us - how could less time on the back of a donkey benefit all these children? But then I thought about the special moments I saw all our children share with the donkeys - leaning forward to feel the donkey's mane, touching the donkey’s face to thank them after a ride, and all the questions put to us about the donkeys. The child’s passion for The Donkey Sanctuary does not lie only in the ride, but in the donkey itself - the engagement with another sentient being, as described so eloquently in Donna’s story about her son Alexander - is what is key to the ongoing development of all children (and adults!) who visit The Donkey Sanctuary.
Therefore this new programme provides more opportunity for a connection between donkey and child known as limbic resonance, i.e. when two sentient creatures connect on an emotional as well as a physical level. This also means we can now measure those “magical moments” of engagement of the child with the donkey but also assess if the donkey’s life is enriched as a consequence of interacting on the programme. These are things we have never been able to measure before.
Thank you to Donna Alderson for her kind support which has allowed me to share her son Alexander's story in this way.