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Be inspired every day with Living North
Jane Cherry
October 2014
Reading time 5
What started as a field with a few horses has now developed into a riding centre where 180 disabled riders come for horse riding lessons every week

Washington Riding Centre, home of the Tyne and Wear Riding for the Disabled Association, provides horse riding lessons for children and adults with a range of disabilities and learning difficulties. This year they celebrate 50 years since beginning their journey. Living North chatted to Centre Manager Jane Cherry about its history and the benefits of riding.

Where did the inspiration to start a Riding for the Disabled (RDA) group come from?
The founder of the Tyne and Wear RDA was Dr Strang and his wife Norah. In 1964, he was working with polio sufferers in South Shields. Norah had an interest in horses and thought it would be therapeutic for his patients to try riding. To start with it was literally a couple of horses in a field where patients could come and ride around, and that’s how it went on for a few years.

How did you become involved with the group?
Norah went to the Rotary Club in South Shields and asked if anyone could give any help, either financially, or their time, to the group. My dad was there and volunteered to drive the minibus that would pick the patients up on a Saturday from Monkton Hospital and take them to the field to ride. I was about 10 years old at the time and said I would go with him. My interest grew from there, and I got more involved with the horses. After about six months, I would go on my own to get the horses ready and then I’d meet up with my dad to do the hospital ride. 

So how did the group grow from a field with a few horses to the big centre you have today?
Blue Peter did a Clothes Horse Appeal in the 1970s where people would send in bags of clothes to help raise money for the RDA. From that appeal they bought a pony called Rags who went round all the RDA groups, and we were given funds to help us build a centre which opened in 1977.

As Centre Manager, what does the average day involve?
My job role is to keep all the different areas in sync with each other. We’ve got 180 RDA riders, able-bodied riders, volunteers who come in to help with lessons, trainees that are working towards a British Horse Society exam, and of course we’ve got horses as well. So I manage the communication between everybody and make sure everyone’s in the loop. I also sort out everyday problems, do some of the instruction, and obviously care for the 42 horses we now have on site.

What are the benefits of horse riding for those with disabilities or difficulties?
There are massive benefits. It doesn’t just have physical benefits, although riding is about improving your balance, strengthening your muscles and building up your core strength. There are also emotional and psychological benefits. We have people here who are in a wheelchair all the time, and aren’t able to go across a field. You don’t think about that, but they always have to stay on a path, so when they get on a horse’s back they can go to any area that they want to. We have a little woodland area that they can ride through and it’s a great experience for them. 

Another benefit is the fact that when you’re in a wheelchair you’re always looking up at people, but on a horse you’re looking down at people, so it gives those in a wheelchair a really big psychological boost. 

We also have children come to the centre who are disruptive and have problems fitting in at school. They come and ride with us and it’s amazing how they relate to the horses because they don’t feel judged or put under any pressure. You can see over the weeks how they develop, and how they build a great relationship with the horses. Their teachers will give us feedback on how disruptive and aggressive they can be at school, yet when they are here they act completely differently.

There’s a lovely social feeling here. People come and ride every week at the same time, and we generally have the same volunteers who will take those lessons; so a bond will form between the volunteers and the riders, and of course between the riders and their horses. They all have their favourite horse that they like to ride. 

What does the future hold for Washington Riding Centre?
We want to continue to provide a good service. Recently we were lucky enough to get a grant from Sports England to build eight new stables. There will be a specially designed area, with three walls and an open side, where we can do lecture demos so people in wheelchairs and those less mobile can learn how to groom and care for the horses without being in a cramped stable. We want to educate our riders about the horses, so they learn how to take care of them as well as ride them. 

Washington Riding Centre
Stephenson Road, Washington, Tyne and Wear NE37 3HR
0191 416 2745 

‘It’s amazing how they relate to the horses because they don’t feel judged or put under any pressure.’

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