The special human-horse connection has gained more and more interest in recent years, but Riding for the Disabled has been putting it to good use for decades.
The charity’s regional leaders can’t speak highly enough of the impact it has on their clients, as Carolyn Millet explores.
Every week or two during school terms, children and adults with disabilities get to experience the motion, freedom and sense of achievement that comes with riding high on a horse.
Riding for the Disabled days are striking in their contrasts - there are humans and animals; volunteers are often a mix of fairly senior people and high school students; there are riders with physical disabilities and people who have to be quite fit and able-bodied to lead horses; and there’s the calm and quiet routine of preparing and riding horses, punctuated by the occasional shout of excitement or joy.
Established about 50 years ago, Riding for the Disabled Australia covers regional centres across the nation, including at Tamworth, Gunnedah and Armidale.
The trusty dog might be top of the list for special human-animal connections, but the horse certainly has its own special place in history, art, mythology, culture and civilisation - think of its uses in war, farm work, transport, leisure, gambling, sport and entertainment.
But for decades, RDA has been putting people and horses together for enjoyment, challenge and achievement.
The organisation caters for people with all kinds of physical and intellectual disabilities.
Centres provide different activities, from riding and carriage driving to vaulting and
The national body even provides a pathway to the Paralympics and Special Olympics.
Jenny Whiteford is the North West regional representative for RDA.
She became involved when she moved from Sydney to Tamworth more than 10 years ago.
“I started as a volunteer and decided I really liked it, it was a good thing to do and the kids were just fabulous,” she said.
A volunteer might help the coaches by saddling up, walking with or leading a horse.
Riders generally attend in school groups or with disability service providers such as Challenge or Sunnyfield. A large proportion are children.
“The ride is important but the horses have a big role as well; the child gets to touch, feel and talk to them,” Jenny said.
“The looks on the faces of the children and the way they advance through and come out of themselves and interact with other people they don’t normally … It’s really rewarding to see them up there and getting them to the stage where some can ride by themselves.”
Jenny said the benefits were clear for children with not only physical challenges.
“A lot of children with behavioural problems interact better with horses than with people.”
Some RDA horses are bought by the organisation, some donated and some leased.
The horses at Tamworth live at the centre, but in other centres, such as Gunnedah, they are agisted and brought in every riding day.
Jenny said the animals had to be not too young and not too old, and have the right conformation and temperament. Volunteers are always welcome to feed, water and rug up the horses, as well as muck out the stables.
“Not all people are horsey people that go and help,” Jenny said, however. There are people who are there because they love children or they want to have interaction with disabled people; there’s also the wonderful people who volunteer in the kitchen and make food for the day.”
Jenny said there were many tales of how riders had been affected by their experience.
“There was a person coming with one of the groups at Tamworth, and she’d been coming for about five years before we actually realised she could talk to us,” Jenny said.
“It got to the stage she trusted us and liked us enough to start talking. Another girl we had was in a wheelchair, she used to be strapped into it – but to put her onto a horse just made such a difference.
“She started off slumping over and people having to hold her. It took about five years, but she was eventually able to sit up by herself. There’s always a transformation to some degree in [riders].”
Max Small has been Gunnedah RDA president on and off for about 10 years.
“When I was young my father worked on a property, so I always had a horse to ride around when we were kids,” he said. “I rode in shows, but I was only just a rough hillbilly rider - I was in one show with only three riders and I couldn’t get a third!”
Max said the centre was grateful for the help of junior volunteers from Gunnedah High School and St Mary’s College.
“Without the high school pupils, I don’t think we could do it, because there’s too much walking and most of the senior volunteers are not babies any more - I’m on the verge of being 80 and some are older than me,” he said.
“I enjoy it; it’s a thing I get a lot of pleasure out of, working with underprivileged ones - does you good to bring a smile to their face.”
Max said volunteers were always “desperately” needed, and they didn't have to be horse lovers. Max said he was often touched by the effect RDA had on its clients, and talked about one girl who used a wheelchair.
“Her eyes might move but none of her body moves, but when we start to wheel her up the ramp to take her for a carriage ride, her arm will move up in the air and she’ll give a bit of a shout - so it does something for her.”
HOW TO GET INVOLVED:
Tamworth Riding for the Disabled Association: Jill Laidlaw on 6760 9888
Gunnedah Riding for the Disabled Association: Elizabeth Heath on 6742 6470
Narrabri Riding for the Disabled Association: Trish Leitch on 67944526
Coonabarabran Riding for the Disabled Association: Melissa Clarke on 0415 136 321