Reigning Downs Hauora Centre is bringing together education and equine experience to make a difference for rangatahi in Murihiku. Owner Jade Ward created the centre, inspired by 32 years of experience with horses and 17 years in the education sector. She decided to create Reigning Downs to address gaps she saw in the way kids are taught in mainstream schools.   

“I taught at a low decile school for 14 years and came to see a lot of flaws in the education system,” Jade explains. “I looked at the curriculum which stated the essential skills children are meant to leave high school with, but a lot of these kids were arriving with so much going on that it was extremely difficult for them to function in the classroom. I felt like it always seemed like a sense of failure for them, when there could be somewhere else out there in the world that they’d succeed.”  

Jade started to imagine what that might look like, and it didn’t take long for her to see that working with horses had the potential to build those essential skills like perseverance, resilience, problem solving, confidence and leadership. “All of those things that children are meant to be learning in an academic setting, they shine through when working with hōiho,” Jade says. “When I was young, if I hadn’t had horses in my life, my personal direction could have taken a very different path. They have been such a good support for me and that’s why I had the idea to give others the chance to have that same experience.”  

“All of those things that children are meant to be learning in an academic setting, they shine through when working with hōiho,”

It didn’t take long for Jade to confirm that her idea was a good one. “It’s amazing to see how mesmerised our participants are the first time they touch a horse, and the impact it can have,” she says. “I have some students who come to me because they can’t function for more than two hours in a classroom due to heightened behaviour. They come out here and their parents have never seen them so calm.”  

Reigning Downs began operating in November 2020, providing bespoke horseriding lessons to rangatahi individually or in small groups. Each student meets with Jade beforehand, and she develops a tailored learning approach specific to their needs. Most lessons happen on a weekly basis, and start with 10-15 minutes in the classroom before spending the rest of the session with the horses.  

“My pilot programme was with a group from the Murihiku Young Parents facility,” says Jade. “Now, I’m a vendor for Oranga Tamariki and receive referrals from them as well as other places like Te Kura.”    

Reigning Downs is a whānau business, employing both of Jade’s parents. Her mother provides manaaki and wraparound support for the students and their whānau. Her father, a former horse trainer, works with Jade in the riding school. “It’s so cool to work with my parents. They’re just a hit with everyone too,” Jade says. “It gives the participant that really wholesome wraparound support, giving them the confidence to push themselves just that wee bit further.”  

One of Jade’s top priorities is ensuring that Reigning Downs helps participants overcome the sense of failure they feel in school. “We set goals together in the very first session – one goal for here at Reigning Downs, and one for outside. The first goal might be learning to take care of their horse, learning to walk on independently, and then being able to post for the trot. The second goal might be about gaining confidence outside of Reigning Downs, or maintaining a friendship,” Jade says.

“Every four or five weeks as they achieve these goals, we sit down and talk about how it was achieved, and then we set new goals together. When they leave a session they know they’ve achieved something and that makes a huge difference.”  

As demand for Reigning Downs has increased, the stable has grown from three horses to ten – a huge increase in operating costs that Te Pūtahitanga o Te Waipounamu has been proud to support with via Wave funding. “I always call the horses part of the team, so realistically I’m paying for them as employees too in terms of the food and maintenance that’s required to keep them performing well,” Jade says.

 “At the same time, I don’t want to increase my prices. I don’t want to have to turn anyone away or make the price unreachable for whānau.”  

In the future, Jade would like to see the Reigning Downs model replicated nationwide. “There are so many children out there who would benefit from this, as long as the concept is kept real and authentic,” she says. “I just want to see all children to feel confident to go out into the world, to be active members in society and to be happy.”