Just off the Pan Island Expressway in Bukit Timah is a place where horses are free to roam. Featuring lush greenery and white picket fences, it evokes a sense of calm and promises a momentary respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
It is for these reasons that the grounds of the Bukit Timah Saddle Club are perfect for the work that Jessamine Ihrcke does. The 35-year-old is the founder and managing director of Theris (short for Therapeutic & Educational Riding in Singapore), which specialises in therapeutic riding and equine-assisted therapy programmes for children with special needs.
Started in October 2016, Theris primarily helps children aged four and above, who have disabilities such as cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, autism and Down syndrome, as well as conditions such as attention deficit and sensory processing disorders. On some occasions, Theris also works with young adults between 18 and 26 years old.
Therapy sessions at Theris involve Desiree, a former showjumping stallion. “Desiree always has the rider’s welfare at heart and is incredibly gentle with the kids. He is the perfect therapy horse,” Ihrcke says fondly of her four-legged partner.
Sessions are mostly conducted one-on-one. This is something that Ihrcke takes pride in as she feels it enables her to spend quality time with a child and assess his or her needs and progress. Ihrcke, a psychology and counselling graduate from the University of Surrey, Roehampton, says: “It is my way of giving back to the community.”
Each session typically starts with Ihrcke and her student grooming Desiree and putting on his saddle. A riding session, designed based on the needs of every child, follows.
“During our sessions with the horse, the child is taken into a different world. If I can get him or her to forget about the disability and instead focus on the ability, then I would have done my job,” says Ihrcke, who also holds a diploma in equine-assisted therapy from the Igogo Academy in Germany.
She tells us about the time she conducted a group programme during which each student was tasked to steer a horse through an obstacle course marked by poles. Everyone in the group managed to finish without incident, except one, whose companion kept knocking the poles over. Expecting the child to be disappointed, Ihrcke braced herself for a tantrum. Surprisingly, he was thrilled by the result.
“He exclaimed: ‘Look Miss Jessie, my horse is so strong and he was the only one to knock down all the poles!’ I was amazed by his reaction and thought what a positive outlook on life he has — something we see as negative is seen as the contrary by an innocent child.”
Therapeutic riding also seeks to boost a child’s concentration levels and improve his or her deficiencies as well as motor functions. “I find that working with horses helps children develop a sense of social responsibility and teamwork, and benefits them in the long run.”
Asked what drives her in her work, the mother of twin boys draws reference to her formative years. A child of mixed German-Chinese parentage, she had always felt like she never quite belonged to a specific group. She experienced low self-esteem and wasn’t particularly good at school or making friends. It was only after a visit to her father’s hometown in Germany, where she was introduced to horses, that she found something she was good at.
“I started taking lessons at the Singapore Polo Club and everything in my life became about horses. It bolstered my confidence and this is the same thing I want for the kids I work with — to know that if they can steer this 600kg animal, they can do anything they want.”
My first riding experience was…at six years old. The horse I rode was a mare named Dark Ann; a dark bay with a white blaze. I just thought: “This is amazing!”
My horses…taught me different things such as bravery, kindness and strength.
Happiness is…being with horses; their smell, warmth, comfort and movements soothe my soul and re-charge me.
Success is…to be happy with who you are and what you do; if you love what you do, you do not have to work a day in your life
My kids…are the joy and pride of my life! They are almost two years old now and have such zest for life.
My greatest love…is my husband — after the horses! He is my strength and my pillar of support.