Could urban horse riding be good for you?

Student uses experience with dyslexia and passion for all things horses as inspiration for final year project

Date posted

25 May 2017


Last updated

19 March 2020

The sight of someone riding a horse within a city centre may seem strange to many passers-by but one Edinburgh Napier student is on a mission to make it the norm.

Interior and spatial design student Sophie Gothard has used her passion for all things equine as the inspiration for her final year project.

But it’s a passion that runs deeper than your average horse lover. Sophie credits the animal as one of the key factors in helping turn her life around.

Throughout her primary and early secondary schooling in Essex, the 22-year-old struggled with undiagnosed severe dyslexia. Coupled with the pressures of growing up, it had a dramatic effect on her school work.

Just as her struggles threatened to spiral out of control, Sophie and her parents made the decision to move north to Scotland.

It was during her time at The Community School of Auchterarder – with the help of her English teacher reading the signs of her dyslexia – that Sophie’s life started to turn around.

The move allowed her to commence horse riding again which she found to have a positive effect on her mental and physical health. It helped her cope with her dyslexia and the calming influence of horse riding improved her overall wellbeing.

Sophie and horse Aya

And now – as she exhibits her work as part of Edinburgh Napier’s More Than A Degree Show at Merchiston campus – her own journey is front and centre as she showcases her design for an Urban Horse Therapy Retreat within the city itself.

Utilising a multi-story car park site by the Shore in Leith, Sophie has designed a 9,700 sq m facility that acts as a rehabilitation retreat for horses affected by laminitis as well as individuals and families with learning difficulties and mental health issues.

It can cater for 12 horses and 12 individuals at the same time and features self-catering apartments, fun viewing spaces and even slides that drop into pits of hay of which the retreat’s horses can eat from. There is also a viewing area that could allow visitors to interact with some of the retreat’s horses.

On the roof is a riding area, overlooked by a rooftop pavilion, from where the general public can watch therapy sessions and learn about the qualities of working with horses.

The design uses a range of raw and natural materials – there is living moss on the walls, weathered steel throughout and natural splashes of colour to bring the space to life.

The retreat could even see attendees take to the streets on horseback, with a number of quiet industrial roads in and around Leith already earmarked as potential urban trekking routes.

It’s an ambitious idea but it’s one that has allowed Sophie to reflect on her own journey so far with a view to helping shape the future of others who are experiencing similar issues as she did.

Sophie's Urban Horse Therapy Retreat

She said: “Growing up, I experienced a range of issues at school that I now know was linked to my dyslexia. I saw things and behaved differently to others of the same age – it was tough not really knowing why I was different and what to do to cope.

“I moved to Scotland nine years ago and a combination of finally being diagnosed with dyslexia and starting to horse ride again has had a massive impact on me. I was 13 when I realised that horse riding offered me an escape from the issues I was having with my learning disability at school. It helped me relax and gave me a clearer head that allowed me to process things better.

“This experience has really been the driving force behind my final year project. Horses are not often seen in a city and many who have lived in a city for the majority of their lives have never experienced horse riding, or haven’t actually seen one in person. I really want to change that.

“The retreat I’ve designed has a number of functions. It’s there to harness the benefits that being around horses can bring to those affected by learning difficulties and mental health issues but it’s also there to support horses suffering from laminitis – a painful condition of the hoof. It’s designed in a way to provide comfort and support to both. It’s also there for the people of the city. It’s a place where they can take a break from city life and feel connected with nature again. It’s a chance for people to learn about horse therapy and the qualities that working with them can bring.

“I’m really interested in in the urban horse riding approach as so many people have to give up their passion when they move to a city. Playing my part in shining a spotlight on this, alongside helping others with anxiety and mental health issues, is definitely my aim.”