A NEW approach to slashing youth offending has had dramatic results in the Lothians – using horses.
A group of troubled teenagers has just completed a nine-month course learning to ride and care for the animals in a bid to alter their behaviour under the first scheme of its kind in the UK.
The 13 city youngsters had been involved in low-level offending and most were either in care, foster homes or living in secure accommodation.
Following the course, the two youths in secure accommodation have been released from the unit after a dramatic improvement in their conduct, and a 16-year-old boy on the scheme has just begun studying an equestrian course at Oatridge Agricultural College in West Lothian in the hope of becoming a jockey.
PC Steve McGill, a youth engagement officer for Lothian and Borders Police who came up with the idea, said: "Part of my job is to take kids getting into trouble and give them something to do to try and divert their behaviour.
"I've a personal interest in horse-riding and I thought that might be an activity to catch their imaginations. I did some research and found similar schemes had run in the United States and been very successful.
"We've had great feedback from their social workers and carers about their behaviour improving, which was a condition of staying on the course.
"You sometimes hear people complaining that these kind of schemes reward bad behaviour. But these are kids from troubled family backgrounds whose lives could be turned around by a little direction and opportunity. The savings from freeing up two beds in secure accommodation alone would justify the cost, as they're like hens' teeth."
The boys and girls, aged between 15 and 17, visited the Edinburgh and Lasswade Riding Stables, just outside the Capital, one afternoon a week between last November and August.
As well as being taught to ride, they learned about equine health and anatomy, tying harnesses and saddles, and stable management, which included mucking out.
The project was funded with a 15,000 grant from Cashback to Communities, which distributes money seized from criminals.
The cash was awarded to the 6VT Youth Cafe, based in Victoria Terrace, which runs the Step Up programme with the police.
Social workers and carers were invited to nominate youths they thought might benefit from the scheme and the youngsters were asked to send in applications. Each one was interviewed before a group of 13 was drawn up.
PC McGill said: "We wanted to create a very grown-up atmosphere where were they interviewed as if they were going for a job. That gave them a sense of achievement as well as good experience when they go for jobs."
After completing the course last month, the youths were taken on a beach ride in Dunbar before being presented with certificates.
Dot Horne, executive director with 6VT, said: "It was very encouraging to see these young people stick with such a long-term project. It's been something which gave them confidence