The Avon Centre – Harnessing pony power to help young people with complex needs

The Avon Centre is an equine and nature-based activities charity based in Henbury. For over thirty years it has provided the positive experience of riding and other outdoor activities, to improve the health and wellbeing of people living with a wide range of complex special needs, from learning difficulties to neurological conditions, sensory disabilities and those on the autistic spectrum.

The charity was founded by Stella Saywell, one of the first physiotherapists to understand the therapeutic benefits of horse riding for children and adults.

Horses are believed to be natural and empathetic animal therapists. Simply sitting up straight on a horse provides physiotherapy and core strengthening exercise, increasing balance and mobility in everyday life without the rider needing to coordinate or understand complex movements. Riding can also serve as occupational and speech therapy, by using the natural gait and movement of a horse to provide motor and sensory input. Known as hippotherapy, riding is particularly beneficial to patients with physical and mental disabilities, improving neurologic functions and cognitive processes.

Recognised as a centre of excellence for riding and equine therapy, the Avon Centre welcomes approximately 200 children and adults every week to benefit from a carefully structured programme of sessions, amounting to 7,500 individual rides annually. The Centre also has a special Forest School classroom located in private woodland where children can explore nature, develop skills and build confidence in the outdoors.

For many, spending time at the Centre not only helps them to learn new skills but also offers them a chance to make like-minded, and often life-long, friends.

In 2020, life was disrupted significantly by Covid, with the impact felt strongly amongst people living with a disability, particularly those with existing mental health problems; loneliness, anxiety, and depression were being experienced by more people than ever before. The Avon Centre knew from its many years of experience that spending time with animals and being immersed in nature can reduce stress, boost confidence and help people to feel more connected with others.

The charity responded by piloting ‘Beyond the Gait’, a new non-ridden, wellbeing activity programme to support the emotional health of children with special educational needs and disabilities. Working with a small team of rescue Shetland ponies, activities would enable children to experience the beneficial effects of caring for the ponies, in small groups or one-to-one, in over 100 acres of woodlands and pastures.


“Walking and talking in nature with the ponies is very good for my daughter as she can work at her own pace to feel more comfortable and confident.

Progress is always slow but it has been so positive for her.”

A parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)


In the midst of the pandemic lockdowns, when so many activities were postponed or cancelled, in less than 24 hours the pilot scheme received twice as many applications for the 40 places available.

In February 2022 the Avon Centre approached SMV with an application for support to extend the programme to meet the exceptional demand.

In addition to taking on more staff and volunteers, and providing training to support the programme, SMV’s funding of £5,000 allowed the Centre to make vital improvements to the site to enhance the experience for everyone. Upgrades to the site meant that they could provide more suitable spaces for children with autism who require quieter and calmer spaces.

Between May and December 2022, the Centre’s skilled team and their volunteers delivered 192 Beyond the Gait sessions to 474 children.

The opportunity to spend time with the ponies has resulted in multiple positive reactions among the participants. Many said they felt happier, less anxious and less isolated following the sessions. Some children felt empowered to be more independent and take greater responsibility within the group, while the ‘walk and talk’ aspect encouraged others to communicate more comfortably and confidently, both with the ponies and the instructors.

Families have also said that the sessions have had a tangible impact at home. Some have observed that, after spending time at the Centre, children have been more able to connect with other people, including their siblings or carers, and some parents have said that, as a result of the success of Beyond the Gait, they feel a greater sense of having control of their own lives.

Horses and ponies are believed to be natural and empathetic animal therapists

“The children are loving their time with the ponies! I have noticed how my daughter is now feeling much more confident with her interactions with her brother and others.

Yesterday my son became really relaxed stroking and caring for Louis the pony and he started talking with the session leader.”

Parent of siblings aged 7 and 8, both with ASD