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People Making Changes Issue 30 -
Horse riding helps disabled people
cope with their disabilities

Dorothy - 05/12/97

A beautiful sunny day, excited riders in colourful jackets displaying the name of the district they represented, caring helpers supporting the riders, enthusiastic spectators, the savoury smell of the sausage sizzle, announcements on the loud speaker keeping everyone on track - all the ingredients of a very special day. This was the weekend of the New Zealand National Special Olympics, and I was watching the equestrian section.

As I watched I could not help thinking how many volunteer hours had gone into the training of the disabled riders and the preparations for this day. On this occasion the most advanced riders were performing, but there are many others receiving help.

A leader with great commitment
Jenny Nicol is deeply involved in the work of the organisation. She was Sports Director for the equestrian section of the Special Olympics, but she is involved through the year as an instructor and at present she is Acting President of the Christchurch group of the Riding for the Disabled Association (R.D.A.). This group belongs to New Zealand Riding for the Disabled, a coalition of fifty two independently managed voluntary groups.

Regular activities at Christchurch RDA
Rallies are held six days a week, with sometimes three rallies a day. The rallies include school groups of special needs children, riders from IHC homes and disabled individuals who have been recommended to take up riding as a therapy and/or recreation. The group has eight horses and ponies which are chosen because they have regular paces and are temperamentally suited to the work with the disabled riders.


Sixty three people with disabilities come to the rallies each week and there are fifty on the waiting list. Those who come may be either physically or intellectually disabled or both. They must have a medical certificate from their doctor permitting them to take part. A physiotherapist attached to RDA checks whether riding would be harmful or beneficial for them. Safety of riders and helpers is carefully monitored and as they train each rider's progress is regularly reviewed.

Two of the rallies are held specifically for people with head injuries. Their problems with balance and some spasticity are improved by the riding. Those who are able to make significant progress are encouraged to go to normal riding schools and take part in other horse-related activities such as treks.

A rider with a head injury makes great progress.
Jill Lloyd had been a rider from the time she was twelve until her responsibilities as a mother left her no time to ride. After an accident some years later she was left hemiplegic on her right side. Desperately seeking an activity which was still possible with her disability Jill went to Kiwi Able, a service run by the Christchurch City Council, and was given a list of activities including Riding for the Disabled. She came to the group rather nervously and at first she could not ride as one side of her body does not function.

Person on horse

Determined to succeed, Jill helped to devise her own equipment - special improvised ladder reins stiffened with plastic piping and a caged stirrup to prevent her right foot from slipping forward. As well as coming to her RDA rally Jill now trains with a qualified Centred Riding instructor. She belongs to a newly formed group - the Paraequestrians and aims to compete in the Paralympics in Sydney in the year 2000. She places great value on the training she has received at R.D.A. and believes that riding has done wonders for her confidence. The Special Olympics were for intellectually disabled riders so Jill was unable to compete, but she and Rosie Smyth gave a demonstration ride in the lunch break.

Enjoyment and a sense of belonging paramount
Prue Gardiner and Janet Clifford, two very experienced instructors, stressed that people with a disability are part of society and must not be viewed as a marginalised group. At RDA all the people are valued and the important aspect is that the riding must be enjoyable for the riders. Prue and Janet believe that the volunteers get as much enjoyment out of the activities as the riders.

Benefits of riding
The exercise involved in riding helps to develop balance. The riders' flexibility is developed as their position changes once they are on a horse. Riding is a natural way of getting hip movement which is not experienced when sitting in a wheelchair.

Riders with cerebral palsy have little conscious ability to relax, but relax spontaneously on horseback and with that relaxation become capable of more movement in the saddle.

Friendship with an animal can be very precious to riders, especially those who are very immobilised or blind.

The instructors must watch for fatigue and chafing, especially for riders with spina bifida. They need to be patient people and to understand that with people who have had disabilities like strokes the brain is slow to transmit messages for motor movement, especially to the limbs.

Riding helpful to a disabled young woman
Doreen Cook and Katrina came to watch the Special Olympics. Katrina heard about RDA when working at Linkpack, an organisation where disabled people are employed. Linkpack nominated her for riding and after three days she overcame her nervousness and enjoyed it and Doreen has noticed growth in Katrina's confidence as a result.

RDA helps those who are multiply disabled.
Anne Glass is a teacher associate at Ferndale School which caters for people who have multiple disabilities, including intellectual disabilities. She brings five students once a week for an hour. She believes that the training at RDA is beneficial to these people.

For those who are autistic riding is relaxing and gives them enjoyment. It is difficult for these students to conform and they don't cope well with change. They make progress at RDA because of the special training methods and the consistent structure.

Anne commented that the physically disabled benefited with the development of better balance and posture, strengthening of muscles, and improvement in confidence.

Benefits to the intellectually disabled
Catherine Lynn, one of the instructors, summed up the benefits to the intellectually disabled as improvement in confidence, coordination, sequencing, concentration, tactile skills, and interaction with the horses and other people. Many of these riders spend a lot of their time indoors and are desensitised to varying temperatures by being out of doors in all types of weather at RDA. Above all, Catherine emphasised, time at RDA was enjoyable time.

Information and offers of support
One useful way to support this organisation is to sponsor a horse.

Anyone who can help this group or who wants more information about admission to rallies can make contact by ringing Carol Barton, phone (03) 323 8362.

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