“There have been youngsters who were too frightened to even approach a pony, and let alone touch one, but after gentle encouragement over a period of time, he or she will be rushing to be the first to mount and loving every minute of the ride - what an achievement for a young rider.”
Little did I realise when I offered to help (for an hour a week) at our local branch of the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) that, ten years later, I’d be helping on two days a week and would have become a qualified RDA Group Instructor. But smiling faces beaming back at you makes you realise just how much the children enjoy the experience of being on a horse or pony. A set of four legs instead of your own – especially if you happen to rely on a wheelchair - makes a massive difference, as does looking down at someone - instead of always looking up.
The human/animal encounters are so special. Animals do not judge; they accept you as you are. I have been lucky to experience many magical moments during my years of helping the Special Needs Section of the Horse Rangers Association at Hampton Court.
I have loved and been around horses all my life, so the chance to become involved with those wonderful animals again, and at the same time help young people with special needs, was an opportunity I jumped at. I have made many good friends (including the horses and ponies!).
The benefits of riding are enormous – firstly, of course, the exercise itself, which strengthens the muscles of the back. Then there is the animal contact, which many of the children will have never experienced before. Just touching, patting and stroking their horse or pony seems to calm the children. It boosts their self-esteem and, therefore, their self-confidence. Just being outside and taking part in an activity that is so different, is a benefit in itself. My group of riders are severely autistic but they smile and join in the class activities and I’m sure the benefits of riding reflect in other areas of their lives, particularly communication.
Even the keenest of horses or ponies seem to realise that their rider needs a little extra help and care, and they want to look after their charges to the best of their ability. The horses are, indeed, wonderfully attentive and supportive in their own right.
There have been youngsters who were too frightened to even approach a pony, and let alone touch one, but after gentle encouragement over a period of time, he or she will be rushing to be the first to mount and loving every minute of the ride - what an achievement for a young rider.
An open day is held in the summer when the riders have the opportunity to enter competitions and win rosettes. The children are cheered on by their parents and carers, and it is a great opportunity for everyone to become involved and for the children to feel important.
Recently on Woman’s Hour on the Radio, an RDA Instructor, when interviewed, said that as the benefits of riding were so great that she wished that riding for these children could be available on the NHS!
As part of the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the RDA we took part in the “World’s Largest Riding Lesson”. Each group in the UK carried out exactly the same lesson – quite an achievement. The RDA in this country has 18,000 volunteers in 500 centres who give over 3 million hours of their time every year.