I’ve been volunteering with Newbury RDA at Hampstead Norreys for almost two years now and to be honest, it is something I should have done years ago!
The children, currently from the Castle School and Mary Hare, are a delight to work with. I suppose it is the sheer joy on their faces when they arrive and see the ponies for their lessons. The stables are well managed and the variety of ponies very well cared for. The lessons, lasting about half an hour each, are structured, fun and caring according to each childs’ needs.
Don’t hesitate, as I did, come along and join us!
Dawn, Tuesday Afternoon Group.
‘My son, who has Down’s Syndrome, is 12 years old and started riding with the RDA about 4 years ago. He LOVES riding and looks forward to the lessons. He has learned to sit up straight, guide the pony himself using the reins, and give the pony vocal instructions to ‘walk on’ and ‘whoah’. His favourite lessons are the ones that finish with a trot round the school – he has an expression of sheer delight on his face and a very infectious giggle. He loves to hug the pony at the end of the ride. He has gained in confidence, self discipline and muscle tone! Lessons are fun and encouraging, with lots of games and often music. It’s altogether a very rewarding and satisfying experience for him, and for me, to see him enjoying it so much.’
Teaching disabled children to ride can be a far cry from the usual experiences accrued on the instructing circuit. First and foremost, “teaching” may not be the operative word: riding may well be used as a therapy, physical or mental or occupational; it may be an avenue which leads a child to a place of rare contentment – or it may be a terrifying experience involving frightening elevation and rough movement.
The range of disabilities in those children who come to the RDA is vast. There are those who have no communication and there are those who are articulate and chatty and can process instruction. There are those who physically must be supported whilst on a pony and there are those for whom any physical coordination is a struggle: there are also many who are able-bodied but unable mentally to grasp what might be required of them.
Having taught disabled children over the past 10 years, I have come to the conclusion that what we as instructors must offer above all else, is a positive, enjoyable experience. This may mean nothing more than persuading the severely autistic child to stay on the pony for the duration of his lesson, enjoying the sensation and absorbing the movement. Equally there will be others who must be challenged in order to keep their attention and interest: many of these children can be taught a life lesson in respect for the animal they ride.
An instructor of disabled children relies heavily on the volunteer helpers who either lead the ponies or walk beside the children. These people must – and do – also benefit from being involved with the children, developing a relationship with individuals and taking credit for their improvement. Elementary riding instructions (such as telling the pony to stop or go) must be taught clearly and concisely, repeated weekly and built into games which test other areas of physical or mental coordination. Nothing is ever intensive because concentration spans are likely to be limited, so learning and relaxation must alternate.
The ponies we use are, quite frankly, saints! They sometimes have to endure vocal cacophony and physical irritations such as mane pulling! If they occasionally nip their leader or commence a go-slow, they must be forgiven: what they give the children in terms of the experience, plus the chance to develop a communication and relationship, cannot be underestimated.
Teaching disabled children is a constant learning curve: what works for one child won’t necessarily work for another. One learns to be flexible, to experiment with ideas, never to be frustrated and to put in place (where possible) equestrian skills which will reward the rider with results.
The pleasure derived by the children from their riding session is our reward. So often we hear from the school teachers about difficult children who behave immaculately on the allocated riding day. We are privileged to be in a position to offer these children something unique, an experience far removed from the classroom or their home life. When we witness what many of these children must contend with in their everyday lives, it can be so very humbling to see the achievements made.
RDA instructors are constantly rewarded and sometimes saddened but will always feel unspeakably grateful for their teams of two-legged and four-legged partners who enable the activity to occur.
A day in the life of a Volunteer.
I arrive 30 minutes before the beginning of the lesson, then depending on who else has arrived either groom and tack up a horse, damp down the sand in the school or help layout the cones, poles and toys that will be used. However much time I think that I have, the children always seem to arrive before I am ready. I see the same children every week; they have a variety of difficulties either in hearing, listening, understanding, communicating, walking and co-ordination. After one week my early reservations about my ability to chat and support them had disappeared, as had their reticence in chatting to me; I now know about their birthdays, brothers, sisters, holidays, schools, favourite food and television programs. You name it, they will tell you it.
The lesson progresses through a mixture of games and agility exercises aimed at increasing the child’s confidence and balance as well as their ability to ride a pony – in many cases just steering the pony will be a major success for them. Without fail they will all give their pony a stroke and a pat before they leave. That just leaves us to tidy the school, return the ponies to their stable, untack them and put on their rugs and do any other odd jobs; this is followed by coffee and a general discussion. The time seemed to fly by.
I started volunteering in September and arrived on my first day not really knowing whether I would be useful and “any good”, feeling very much like the new boy at school. The introduction to the “RDA Way” of doing things is progressive. People who have not worked with horses before will gain their confidence firstly through side walking, and then if they wish they can move onto grooming, tacking up and finally leading a pony. All these activities are checked with you and entered into your training record, giving you the re-assurance that you are doing the right things. If in doubt there is always someone to ask.
After 3 months what have I learnt?
Be prepared to do anything
In winter it will be cold
Some days I will not be fully utilised
There is always someone to ask
The children need to be given continual encouragement with instructions repeated to them
What have I enjoyed most?
The weekly greeting from the children
Chatting to the children
Seeing the children becoming increasingly confident on the pony
Working with ponies
Meeting a completely new group of friends
What is not so enjoyable?
Cold days There must be more, but none too serious if I can’t remember them.