Saddle up: Students and veterans participate in the healing power of horses

A unique learning partnership has been formed between Robert Gordon University's School of Health Sciences Occupational Therapy in Aberdeen, and local charity Horseback UK, where occupational therapy students will contribute to support and enable the recovery process of injured war veterans.

Jock Hutchison and Jennifer R. CaseltonThird and fourth-year occupational therapy (OT) students are set to take part in research projects, elective placements, enterprise projects and situated learning experiences at Horseback UK, based near Aboyne in Royal Deeside. Students will apply the theory, knowledge and skills of occupational therapy studied at university to the real-life recovery processes of injured armed forces personnel and war veterans.

Horseback UK, based on a 30-acre farm near Dinnet, Aboyne, was created to provide a safe environment to aid those serving in the armed forces who have suffered acute stress and physical injuries as a result of active service.

Horseback UK utilises a holistic approach - working with the horses combined with establishing essential familiar routines for individuals to enable their recovery and adaptation from injury. The University's OT Department and Horseback UK seek to embrace the abilities and skills potential of the war veteran rather than focus on their disabilities.

Stephanie Morrison, a lecturer in OT at the University, who is leading the project, set the partnership in motion following the award of a Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship in 2009 to visit the USA and Canada.

The focus of Stephanie's Churchill Fellowship was to investigate programmes designed to enable war veterans to reintegrate back to civilian life following military service. Stephanie visited a number of organisations on her study tour, including the National Treatment Centre for PTSD in Vermont, USA and Veterans Affairs Canada in Nova Scotia.

Stephanie, in conjunction with her fellow Canadian and American occupational therapists and other health professionals, explored the important key aspects of these programmes and from the findings of her trip, has begun establishing links with Scottish War Veterans' organisations and other agencies.

It is the opportunity to share this knowledge and skills that Stephanie hopes to bring to her students by working in partnership with Horseback UK and most importantly the war veterans, she explains:

"The partnership with Horseback UK will provide an important opportunity for our students to learn from the war veterans and gain a unique   experience out with a clinical setting. As health is created in the communities where individuals work and live, Horseback UK is an example of how and where health can be created and improved through occupations and opportunities. 

"What the students can learn in working with both the veterans and horses cannot be taught in a classroom setting, by transferring their skills and knowledge to a natural environment, this will enhance the student's understanding of many aspects of OT and their future career choices."

Since the First World War, OT as a profession has had a long history of working with military personnel and war veterans. In the wake of current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the knowledge and skills of occupational therapists will be crucial, to enable veterans who have experienced operational stress injuries adapt from military to civilian life and face the challenges associated with this transition.

Although still in a formative stage, it is anticipated that once the project is fully operational the OT students will focus their research and enterprise projects on the recovery and adaptation of injured military personnel and war veterans to participate in daily life.

Fourth-year students, as part of their training, will be supported by the University to assess the veterans' psychosocial and physical needs to develop a programme whilst evaluating their progress.

Third-year students can, as part of their enterprise project, develop the aims of Horseback UK, with the participation of the war veterans, from an OT perspective to improve health outcomes.

In preparation for these learning experiences, Jock Hutchison, who established and now runs the charity, will visit the School of Health Sciences, along with a number of war veterans, to engage with the occupational therapy students about their experiences and what is important to them in regaining their health.

Royal Marine Jason Hare (29), originally from North Wales and now based with 45 Commando at Arbroath, was injured in November 2008 while serving in Afghanistan, losing his left leg below the knee, digits to his right hand and the sight in his left eye.

Helping out at the charity, as an instructor and guide, Jason has found a new sense of hope and looks forward to the students' involvement:

"I'm really looking forward to getting involved with the students and hope the new partnership will not only benefit the recovery process of veterans but also the students' understanding of the therapy involved."

Horseback UK is located at Ferrar, Dinnet, near Aboyne. For more information, please visit

Sarah Grieve
Communications Office

Robert Gordon University
AB10 1FR