Helping Horses Help Children: A Win-Win for Everyone

Once every week, from 2010 to 2013, I took a break from the hustle and bustle of city life. I would sit on a little bench up on a hill overlooking the Northern Suburbs of Johannesburg, the sun warming my skin, a slight breeze keeping the summer heat at bay. I could let my thoughts drift, with nothing to do but watch a group of horses patiently carry children around the pasture beneath my perch.

These moments of peace are among my fondest memories of our three years in South Africa.

Horses helping people at Shumbashaba in Northern Johannesburg

watching riding lessons at Shumbashaba
Watching Impatience’s lessons together with Sunshine, who shortly after also took up riding lessons
Horses helping people at Shumbashaba in Northern Johannesburg
Getting ready to ride into the field under a beautiful African sky

The location: Shumbashaba Stables, halfway between Dainfern and Diepsloot in one of the loveliest areas surrounding Johannesburg.

Shumbashaba, which means “Lion of the Nation” in Shona, was founded by my dear friend Sharon Boyce to help disadvantaged and disabled people through therapeutic riding programs. My daughters were taking riding lessons under the expert direction of Renae Erasmus, who has been a stalwart at Sharon’s side almost from the beginning. I watched them progress from desperately clutching the reins while a groom led their horse, to dressage competitions where they commanded their ponies in supreme concentration, jumping competitions, and the free-wheeling fun of vaulting, four girls at a time, on the broad back of Shumbashaba’s biggest horse, Mr. Watts.

Horses helping people at Shumbashaba in Northern Johannesburg

Horses helping people at Shumbashaba in Northern Johannesburg
Having fun on Mr. Watt’s broad back with Renae leading the charge

But teaching horseback riding is just a small sliver of what Shumbashaba does. Below, I’m going to show you all the great initiatives they are involved in, and hopefully by the end you’ll be ready to roll up your sleeves and join in their efforts to make the world a better place.

Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding

No one quite seems to know why, but it’s well-documented that horses have a way of helping the disabled, particularly children. Whether horses can somehow sense the vulnerability of humans who face obstacles in life, or whether it is the sense of achievement we all feel when forging a bond to such a formidable – and initially scary – animal, there is something in the interaction with horses that has a calming and empowering effect on the disabled. The staff at Shumbashaba regularly works with Bona Lesedi Day Care Centre in Diepsloot by bringing out children to ride and interact with the horses while supervised by therapists.

Horses Helping People

The correct term is equine assisted learning and psychotherapy. Again, the horses are employed to help the people who interacting with them. These outreach programs instill confidence and life skills in kids living in underserved communities in Diepsloot and beyond. Just like with the disabled, the bond between horse and child together with the responsibility of taking care of a horse, help teach important lessons about persistence and respect to kids who don’t otherwise get many opportunities to find their place in the world. For victims of trauma, addiction, and eating disorders there are additional counseling and psychotherapy services woven into the riding program. The children can attend weekly sessions, holiday camps, and other annual events around these themes.

Special Olympics

With the help of Special Olympics SA, Shumbashaba co-hosts two Unified Sports Days every year, where people with intellectual disabilities compete in various sporting categories. A high point for the program was when two riders from Shumbashaba participated in the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles!


There are a handful of Shumbashaba-trained riders ready to start their competitive careers in dressage and showjumping. Each one of them shows promise, but the financial constraints are severe. Shumbashaba is looking to the equestrian community for support to help out with sponsorships that could take the form of an “adopt-a-rider” program. Sponsors are needed for both financial support, mentorship, and hands-on support on the day of the show.

horse in jumping competition

Getting Involved

As you can imagine, keeping all of this going takes a lot of effort. The wonderful Shumbashaba community really needs your help. In South Africa, getting government funding for outreach activities like this can be extremely difficult and time-consuming. The best way to keep all these programs going is to keep growing the network of dedicated volunteers. And that’s where you come in. You don’t have to be a “horse person” at all. If you are an expat and are eager to get involved with a meaningful project to get to know South Africa and make some good friends along the way, the Shumbashaba family is perfect for you!

There are many ways to get involved:

  • The most pressing need is money for supplies, food, and fees. A R100 donation would go a long way towards fulfilling the 2019 fundraising goal.
  • Sponsoring meals or snacks for participants
  • Donating equipment – stable accessories, benches, fencing, poles, second-hand tack, riding clothes etc.
  • Donating education materials such as books, videos, etc.
  • Volunteering your time to help out whenever you can.

Please contact Shumbashaba if you are interested in volunteering, or to inquire about riding lessons for your children:

Again, Shumbashaba is in desperate need of cash funds and would welcome your small donation. Please click here to make one right now.

girl hugging her horse

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