Unbridled compassion

Ros Rowe rescues the horses and then the horses rescue the children. Founded on natural horsemanship principles, the Leg-Up Trust in Havelock North helps children of all ages to build confidence and gain life skills.

Horses have been part of Leg-Up founder Ros Rowe's life since she was a child. A typical horse-mad kid, when she was 11 years old her parents finally relented to buying her a pony for fear she might "go off the rails if they didn't!"

However, at age 17 Ros was struck down with a debilitating illness, leaving her bedridden for almost 20 years. She managed to claw her way back into the saddle and started up a trekking business in the late 1990s to help out a young woman who was having suicidal thoughts.

"Leg-Up grew out of that business because people kept coming out for treks and didn't just want to ride, they needed more than that. I started holding sessions to show 'who' a horse was, not just 'what' a horse was," Ros says.

The trekking business closed in 2000 and the Leg-Up Trust, a Farmlands shareholder, developed from there. Ros' "horse therapy" method worked, as the young woman got back on her feet.

Now, kids are the reason why Ros gets up each day and corrals her crew of horses, donkeys and various other wildlife. Once a week, schools in the area send out students in groups of six to work with the animals, while individual children referred from organisations such as Oranga Tamariki,  the Ministry of Education and the New Zealand Police visit Leg-Up most days. Ros and her team of volunteers teach the children to work with the horses in a non-aggressive way, as well as general farm skills, gardening and cooking.

"We work with all children, from those with mental health or behavioural problems to those who are suffering from grief or need to build their confidence and get a little more support."

Ros believes working with horses helps people learn about relationships and anger management. "Horses are very good at calming and altering negative behaviour as they mirror your emotions. Often when the kids are complaining about the horse's behaviour, I'll ask –who does that remind you of? And it clicks."

The testimonials speak for themselves.

"Leg-Up has taught our daughter that she can commit to an activity and be successful. This is so important for her wellbeing as she has an intellectual disability and judges herself against others at school," one parent reports.

"Stripes has a mixed personality, just like myself, and she has off days which I understand," a student says.

COVID-19 was tough on the Leg-Up Trust, adding to the uncertainty created by the Hawke's Bay drought. Leg-Up does not receive Government funding and any fees charged only account for 25 percent of the running costs.

The Trust has a mixture of paid and volunteer staff, while Ros herself is a full-time volunteer.

"We rely on support from the community and people have been so good to us, donating horse feed and other goods. Coming out of lockdown we weren't sure how well we would do as we can't sanitise the horses, but we put protocols in place and had a lot of kids booked in," Ros says.

"We wanted to make it feel as normal as possible, kind of like a homecoming."

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