Big hearts lift spirits

editorial image
Share this article

A LOCAL social enterprise company that teaches horsemanship and riding to children and adults has received an award to improve facilities.

Big Heart Horses is unique and the first UK centre to be licensed to practise the Spirit Horse method, a programme that, according to research has a huge and positive impact on those living with autism.

Founder of Big Heart Horses, Avril Oliver explained: “I was teaching riding at Gleneagles. On my day-to-day roster I came across people with special needs and issues including medical problems, which weren’t being served by traditional specialist groups. I felt everybody should have the opportunity to be able to ride and develop a relationship with ponies or horses.

“While I really wanted to help everybody, I realised the benefit to people with autism was particularly massive. I had worked with autism in RDA and decided to specialise within this group.”

Seeking a programme that was more intervention driven rather than purely recreational, Avril came across Spirit Horse in Texas, led by founder Charles Fletcher, who has developed programmes for people with disabilities to unleash their full potential through interaction with horses. “ Charles Fletcher invited me to train over there and qualify, and then he licensed our centre.

The centre, based at Tillymorgan near the village of Fisherford, has 12 acres of quality land and six ponies, currently serving about 100 children.

Having started Big Heart Horses herself, without funding and minimal facilities, the centre had been operating for about a year when the £20,000 was awarded from the Social Entrepreneurs Fund. Avril said: “They were very impressed that we had survived two Aberdeenshire winters. The money will go towards installing an outdoor arena and a community parents’ log cabin where parents can chat and support each other and there will be a resource library with information on autism.”

As well as being a full-time volunteer, as a life coach, Avril works with people who have loss of confidence issues, particularly riders, and applies her skills to offer this service to parents of children with autism. She said: “Quality service and customer care is at the top of our list. Each person gets one-on-one attention - that is key.

“Some of our children had been non-verbal and through the Spirit Horse programme have uttered their first words while others with posture difficulties sat up straight for the first time and parents are already reporting an improvement in confidence, self-esteem and calmer behaviour at home and at school.

Commenting on his experience, Daviot Primary pupil Tommy Wade said: “I enjoy grooming most – it really relaxes you and Sander is my best friend, he always listens to me.”

Tommy Wade’s father Gary launched the Garioch branch of the National Autistic Society in 2009. Commenting he said: “I feel there is a massive need in Aberdeen and the Shire for children on the spectrum to be working with the ponies, the benefits are immense.”

Big Heart Horses CIC is a Community Interest Company where all the profits are regenerated into the programme.

Anyone who would like to volunteer for this worthwhile and rewarding cause should contact Avril on (01464) 841416 or email at

Training opportunities are available in the Spirit Horse method and other equestrian related activities.