Horses are amazing animals that have the ability to make a real difference to people’s lives. Evidence of this can be seen on a daily basis at Accessibility Mark centres up and down the country.
When Church Farm Equestrian Centre organised an event to mark Disabled Access Day in March 2017, they hoped it might generate some interest from a few new riders.
Such was the success of the event that some of the visitors who attended the day are still riding at the centre nearly two years on, and it has had a hugely positive impact on their lives.
Julia Evans went along to the event with her eight-year-old daughter, Alisha. Having been born with Down Syndrome, Alicia was behind in her cognitive skills and spoke in a very low tone but is an active child that is very willing to give things a go.
Alisha had never had anything to do with ponies previously so was slightly nervous of them on the day, willing only to groom a pony at arm’s length. Despite her nerves she enjoyed the experience so Julia signed her up for more sessions.
From March to July 2017, Alisha attended Church Farm once a week, just to groom the ponies, with no pressure from the staff to take things any further, then one day at the end of July Alisha announced to instructor Kay Padfield, that today she was going to ‘ride a horse’.
That first ride on Crystal the pony was a turning point from which Alisha has never looked back and she now rides some of the biggest ponies on the yard.
Julia said: “The level of confidence that Alisha has developed through riding has transferred into other areas of her life. She used to get frustrated when people couldn’t understand her but this has now gone, which is definitely down to horse therapy. She has a bond with the pony that is unbelievable.
“When Alisha now struggles with challenges, I remind her that she can ride a horse, so she can do anything. Horses are not judgemental, which Alisha senses and it is just what hyper-sensitive children need.”
Alice Boyett saw the Disabled Access Day event at Church Farm advertised on Facebook and following a chat with Kay on the phone she was encouraged to pop along with her son Ethan. Following a brief ride on a beach donkey, Alice had been waiting for a place to become available at a different riding school for over a year.
Now 12-years-old, Ethan was born with Translocation Down Syndrome 21:21 and was also diagnosed with autism when he was five.
Ethan has complex needs and is completely non-verbal. He is just learning sign language and uses a simple choosing board to choose an activity, food or drink.
Even though Ethan loves being around people, he can sometimes find it difficult to understand how to behave properly and struggles to form relationships with people, and can become frightened if he is unsure of a certain situation and can lash out. Due to poor muscle tone and lax ligaments Ethan also has mobility issues.
During the free taster session the whole family including Ethan’s twin brother got to look around the yard before Ethan got to enjoy his first ride. Although Ethan was initially hesitant and wanted his Dad to stay close by, he enjoyed the experience and it was obvious he was happy to be there.
That evening Alice contacted Kay and they arranged for Ethan to attend for a weekly lesson.
Said Alice: “Riding has benefitted Ethan in so many ways, on a personal, physical and emotional level. Accessing hobbies and clubs for a child like Ethan is so difficult; riding is perfect for him. I can honestly say it is the highlight of his week. He signs 'time to go riding' so we know how important it is to him as he signs very little generally.
“He enjoys greeting all the ponies before his lesson and feels so comfortable at Church Farm that he happily walks around by himself, he's built up a lovely relationship with Kay in particular and is very attached to her.
“It’s great that Ethan has an interest and activity that he can enjoy without me having to be right by his side supporting him, it gives him some level of independence which is so important.
“Riding is so good for Ethan's physical wellbeing as it helps with increasing muscle strength and good posture, as well as his listening skills. From a sensory point of view, it’s great for Ethan to be able to pat and greet the ponies and he absolutely loves twiddling with their manes! Without a doubt riding relaxes Ethan and it is very special to him.
“I would also like to add that Church Farm have been so welcoming and respectful towards Ethan and eager to learn all about him and his needs. The staff sign to Ethan and help him to sign ‘thank you’ to the pony after his lesson.
“Church Farm have exceeded all our expectations and really personalised all of Ethan's lessons. He's ridden to music, through a water trough during the heatwave, and dressed up at Christmas to post cards through a Christmas post box while riding. Thanks to Church Farm, Ethan has found a lifelong hobby and interest which makes him very happy.”
Disabled Access Day 2019 takes place on Saturday, March 16, for more information visit www.disabledaccessday.com
Accessibility Mark status is awarded to a riding centre that has been approved by the RDA following training and assessment. The close link with the RDA means that it can offer continuous support to the establishment to ensure it provides a first-class experience that aims to be hugely beneficial to riders of varying levels of disability.
There are currently 51 Accessibility Mark-approved centres across the country.
To find your nearest RDA Group or Accessibility Mark centre visit www.rda.org.uk