Saddle Up Ranch near Forfar rescues horses and rehabilitates them alongside people who themselves suffer from issues such as PTSD, addiciton, anxiety and autism. Gayle finds out more…
As he grooms, strokes and simply gazes into gypsy cob Dolly’s soft brown eyes, army veteran John Byrne is in his element.
John, 79, has been a regular visitor to Saddle Up Ranch for a year and, like many who come here, finds it’s a fantastic stress reliever.
Founded by Jessie Probst, 35, the ranch currently has 20 horses – every one of them a rescue – and she’s also taken in dogs, ferrets, rabbits, cats, sheep, pigs, donkeys and chickens.
“Horses are known for their therapeutic effects – alleviating stress, slowing the heart rate and stimulating the immune system,” she says.
“Some of them have been through hell, badly treated and mishandled. Just being with them can take you far away from everyday worries.”
As well as taking in rescue horses, Saddle Up works with people who suffer from issues including trauma, depression, PTSD, addiction and autism.
John, a resident at Rosendael Veterans Home in Broughty Ferry, was in the Royal Army Corps and on leaving, worked in the Australian Outback wrangling horses and cattle.
He suffers from flashbacks and agonising leg spasms and yet he got back in the saddle for the first time in thirty years just last week.
“I love the feeling of being on a horse,” he says, as he picks out Dolly’s feet and gets ready to mount.
“Getting involved with horses reminds me of my wrangling days and allows me to forget the physical pain.
“I love getting stuck in; it gives me a sense of achievement and self-worth.”
Another veteran with severe anxiety and PTSD who was initially terrified of horses fell in love with Bright, a miniature Shetland pony who he walked on a lead rope.
His confidence grew to such a degree that he got on Dolly and is learning to ride so he can take part in a charity trek with other PTSD sufferers next year.
There’s also the story of 19-year-old Timo Condie from Inverkeithing, whose army dreams were shattered by injury and he ended up homeless and taking drugs.
Salvation came after Timo contacted Rosendael, discovered Saddle Up and started riding – even though he wasn’t keen on horses.
He took to it like a duck to water, applied to Newmarket to be a jockey and was accepted for an 18-month apprenticeship. He has high hopes of racing at Cheltenham one day.
“People come here for different reasons,” explains Jessie. “They all want escapism and to feel useful, whether they’re cleaning and feeding animals or riding horses.
“There’s no judgement from animals and the sense of calm and losing themselves is great therapy.”
As a horse lover myself, I find it fascinating to watch as Jessie trains Promise, a four-year-old Arabian horse who was very nearly put to sleep by her previous owner.
It’s incredible – Promise follows Jessie around and mirrors whatever she does, whether kicking a ball, stretching or putting her foot inside a tyre.
“Promise came here in January because she was aggressive towards humans,” she explains.
“She was bolshy and spoiled rotten but I realised she was very intelligent and just hadn’t been given a job to do.
“We started clicker training and she learned to follow me, and not go ahead, and stop when I stop.
“She’s settled from being rather bossy to an enthusiastic and gregarious member of our team. Horses are naturally very inquisitive so it’s nice to see Promise so confident and playful.”
I can’t leave this horsey haven without meeting the herd, and Jessie is happy to oblige.
There’s Welsh pony Crystal whose hips and back were injured when her owners tried to mate her with a huge stallion. She’s been getting Shiatsu massage to help ease the pain.
There’s an American Quarterhorse, an Eriskay Pony, a Dartmoor pony, a Fresian, a Thoroughbred, a Mustang, an Appaloosa, and even a hypoallergenic breed, the American Bashkir Curly horse.
The ranch – which is centred on Western rather than English horsemanship – costs £15,000 to run annually and is funded by donations.
That’s led to some sleepless nights for Jessie, who also works as a dog trainer.
“Thankfully some companies have been amazing in helping us financially – Tesco funded a horse trailer and Scottish Veterans Residences fund workshops.
“But as a charity – and with hopes of offering disabled toilets and maybe a cafe – we’re in dire need of donations.”
Saddle Up Ranch was set up by Jessie Probst in 2014.
It welcomes groups of school children, girl guides, support workers, military veterans and people with learning difficulties, mental health and behavioural issues.
The charity is planning a trek into the Cairngorms with PTSD sufferers in September 2018.
Saddle Up’s aim is to rehome horses but some stay forever because of health issues.
Jessie has a degree in animal behaviour from Dundee University and offers clicker training for horse owners, barefoot clinics and dog behaviour workshops.
For more details, see www.saddleupranch.co.uk