Whether you suffer from a disability or not, the benefits of working with horses are immeasurable. Just ask Sam Orde, chair of the renowned Riding for Disabled (‘RDA’) charity, who’s been coaching riders at their Morpeth branch for the last 20 years. ‘There’s a special connection when working with a pony,’ says Sam. ‘It’s enormous fun and it’s therapy at the same time.’ The North East is home to many RDA groups based throughout the region, all providing a vital service to hundreds of local adults and children. But there’s plenty more who would like to take part, and the charity simply can’t reach everyone without your help.
The charity began life in 1969 as a collection of riding groups coming together to create a therapy centre in Suffolk, offering those with physical disabilities (initially children suffering from polio) an alternative kind of physiotherapy. ‘In the early days, the charity was inspired mainly for people suffering from physical disabilities,’ Sam tells us. Nowadays, the charity caters for an enormous range of physical and mental disabilities, with great success.
Demand for riding therapy has continued to grow over the years, with more stables opening in response, until we reach the present day. You can now find more than 500 groups all over Britain, providing lessons in riding, carriage driving and vaulting to approximately 26,500 adults and children every year, and demand continues to grow. Take for example the Morpeth centre, where Sam is based. Within five years of opening, this single centre had a waiting list of almost 100 hopeful riders, and the story is much the same across the country.
But why are people so keen to engage with riding therapy as opposed to other more traditional methods? In addition to the special connection between horse and rider, the physical benefits of the activity are immeasurable. ‘If you suffer from a condition such as cerebral palsy, or you’re post-stroke, you get 1,000 beneficial movements for every 10 minutes of being on top of a walking horse,’ Sam explains. ‘There’s just a lot of learning that can go on. You’re learning the skill of riding, but you’re also working in a team, and both riders and volunteers improve their confidence, they improve their verbal skills, and their self esteem. It’s great fun and a very positive, liberating feeling.’
It’s clear that the charity plays a vitally important role, not only in the North East but across the whole of the UK. ‘People with disabilities are twice as unlikely to take part in a sport or activity as an able-bodied person,’ Sam tells us. ‘Because ponies come in lots of different shapes and sizes and temperaments, and so do children and adults, we can match the two together to give the rider a really positive, special experience, so that they can achieve what they want to get out of the riding.’ This is true in both the larger RDA groups and in the smaller ones too. ‘Throughout the North East, there are lots of smaller riding centres that perhaps meet for one morning a week, but they do a fantastic job in that local area. Etal, for example, is a smaller group, but it is flourishing. Because we have such long waiting lists, the more centres the better,’ Sam says.
The charity has enjoyed many successes over the years. Growing awareness of their work has led to increased demand from hopeful riders, and greater public awareness, and RDA enjoys the support of thousands of volunteers, who dedicate their time and energies to supporting the charity and its endeavours. It’s for this reason that the charity has chosen to celebrate their 50th birthday with an interactive collage, the ‘50 Faces of RDA’ campaign.
‘It is so important that we show the breadth of people involved with RDA,’ Sam explains. ‘It’s one big family, and we wanted to show the diversity of people involved, and the complete range of disabilities that we can help.’ That’s why over the next few weeks, 50 riders and volunteers will be selected to have their photograph taken for the website, with an accompanying interview that aims to challenge the general public’s perceptions of disability, volunteering or equestrian sport. Once completed, the collage will be available to view on the charity’s website in the spring of 2019.
There will also be celebrations throughout 2019, culminating in a week-long birthday party, with every centre in the UK taking part. With so much to celebrate, you might be forgiven for thinking that the RDA doesn’t face too many challenges. But, as Sam explains, this simply isn’t the case. ‘Please make a plea for volunteers when you write this!’ she laughs. The charity is very lucky, as they have many wonderful volunteers already who are completely dedicated and remain with RDA for many years. But they always need more people to lend a hand.
Almost every RDA centre in the UK has a waiting list of adults and children, all of whom would love the opportunity to take part – but they can’t do so without volunteers. Sam’s home centre just outside Morpeth needs 100 volunteers every week and is always on the lookout for more.
But what if you love the cause, but you’re just not so keen on the horses? ‘It doesn’t have to be just horsey people taking part,’ Sam explains. ‘There’s a variety of jobs and roles available, from office-based administration to being a trustee, and full training is given to everyone.’
And what about the next 50 years? The charity has undertaken major research to find out what their riders and volunteers want out of their experience with RDA. So the aim now is to increase the choice available for riders who want to keep on going, whether that be by competing or by trying out something totally new just for fun (the charity is starting to offer show jumping classes in many centres). ‘We want to offer a choice to everyone as to what will inspire them, and keep them riding.’ Ultimately, Sam tells us, the next half a century is all about maintaining and building on the quality of experience available for both rider and volunteer, and the sense of purpose and achievement they take away from it at the end of the day.
Sam sums it up perfectly: ‘The people who benefit and find joy from RDA – whether they’re riding or volunteering – are what bring us alive. Once people find us, they tend to really enjoy coming along because it’s a fun activity, but the team approach is what really makes it so special, to come along and be a part of something.’
To find out more about the 50 Faces of RDA campaign, learn more about volunteering, or to find your local North East centre, visit www.rda.org.