Dorchester horses for prisoner reform courses

Harriet Laurie with two of her horses Inmates control the horses' movements using "body language and attitude"

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Can horses stop prisoners from reoffending?

One woman who has piloted a project using the animals to reform the behaviour of inmates in Dorset believes new methods are needed to bring the prison population down.

A study on Portland revealed horse therapy has proved successful at significantly reducing disciplinary hearings of prisoners, but more research is yet to be done to discover whether it can help stop inmates reoffending altogether.

Now, further studies to explore the method overseas has been given a funding boost.

'Calm and focused'

Harriet Laurie, the founder of TheHorseCourse charity in Dorchester, has won a "travelling fellowship" with the Winston Churchill Trust to investigate other equine assisted interventions in the US and Canada.

The aim of 16 of the trust's 125 fellowships this year is for recipients to bring back learning from abroad to cut crime, save public money and reduce prison numbers.

Start Quote

If you're aggressive the horse will run away, if you're anxious it will ignore you and start eating the grass.”

End Quote Harriet Laurie TheHorseCourse, Dorchester

Ms Laurie currently offers four-day courses to violent and disruptive inmates working with specially trained horses.

The course was first tested at HMP & YOI Portland in 2010, .

Prisoners are invited to control the movements of the horses "simply by using body language and attitude", Ms Laurie explained.

"The horses will do all sort of things like run and turn, but only if the prisoner is very calm and focused," she said.

"If you're aggressive the horse will run away, if you're anxious it will ignore you and start eating the grass."

Ms Laurie hopes her five-week trip, which will begin in the US on 1 September, will enable her to share "best practice" with other equine assisted practitioners and allow her to discover new ways of reducing reoffending.

"Often completely new ideas don't come from within the prison service," she said.

'Zero tolerance'

Rosie Meek, professor of criminal psychology at Teesside University, carried out an interim report on 28 Portland prisoners who took part in one of Ms Laurie's courses, which have also run at HMP Verne, HMP Oakwood, in the West Midlands and HMP Eastwood Park, Gloucestershire.

She said her findings "appeared to confirm success" and showed disciplinary hearings for the prisoners were down 74% after completing the course, and "negative entries" - notes added to a prisoner's file - reduced by 72%.

She added it was "too early" to look at reconvictions.

Russ Trent, the governor at Portland prison, said the course funded by the Primary Care Trust had been running "as a small-scale intervention" at the institute.

He said the prison was "committed to developing the evidence base" for interventions which have the potential to reduce reoffending, but said further work needed to be carried out to justify the wider and longer-term use of horses.

The Prison Reform Trust, which is working in partnership with The Winston Churchill Trust, said while the UK's prison population had almost doubled in the past 20 years, other countries and regions, including New York in the US, had seen prison numbers reduce because they had developed "more effective ways to cut crime".

"A major part of New York's 'zero tolerance' policy has been to divert offenders into treatment for drug and drink addiction instead of sending them to prison for relatively petty crimes," said Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust.

The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust was established shortly after the former prime minister's death in 1965.

Recipients of the trust's travelling fellowships each receive about £6,000 to fund travel costs and accommodation.

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