An RDA riding session. Photo: Freya Coursey
An RDA riding session.
Photo: Freya Coursey

The physical and mental benefits of horse riding have been praised by equestrians for as long as their sport has existed. These benefits, which include improved core strength, greater balance and coordination and an increase in confidence, are doubly felt by those involved with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).

RDA is a UK based charity that focuses on providing therapy to both adults and children with disabilities through horseback riding. The East Fife and Scooniehill branch of RDA was founded in 1976, and their programs are run at the Drumcarrow Equestrian Centre, a mere three miles outside of St Andrews. At the moment the branch owns six horses and offers lessons to over 70 people ranging from the ages of six to 60.

St Andrews graduate Pippa Wisbey first started volunteering with RDA four years ago as a second year student. Over the course of her time with the association, Wisbey went from being a student volunteer to student project officer. “As a volunteer I went down and my job was to make sure that both the rider and the horse stayed safe,” she said. “I either led the horse to make sure nothing spooked it or walked beside the rider to ensure they engaged with the instructor and stayed on the horse.”

Most volunteers at RDA share in Wisbey’s experience as side walkers. The majority of riders who participate require at least one volunteer to walk by their side during lessons, insuring their wellbeing at all times. Riders with more severe disabilities and those prone to seizures require up to three volunteers to walk with them during lessons.

Although the role of a volunteer seems rather straightforward,Wisbey recalls facing several challenges when she first started. “The group I was in was comprised of very young riders, most had genetic disorders and sometimes there were real speech barriers,” she said. “I wasn’t really myself around them. Sometimes if there are communication barriers, and you have to do all the work, it gets a bit difficult.”

RDA helper Jill Halliday agrees that sometimes working with riders can be rather difficult. “Riders can present challenging behavior. Sometimes the ones with autism may want to make a repetitive movement or want to shout,” she said.

However, both Halliday and Wisbey agree that whatever challenges the riders may present at times, the joy that comes from watching them succeed in lessons makes it all worthwhile. Halliday’s memory of her first session with RDA, over three years ago, has stayed with her. “I walked besides a girl who was a wheelchair user and was nonverbal. My job was to walk next to her, hold her leg and made sure she didn’t slip out of the saddle,” she said. “Watching her face when the class broke out into a trot was amazing. She started laughing! I hadn’t realized the experience was going to be so pleasurable.”

Jane Russell, the mother of a rider in the program, can attest to the benefits of RDA for her own daughter, Rachel. Russell had known about RDA for years, but it wasn’t until her Rachel suffered a series of strokes that confined to her a wheelchair that Russell actually got involved with RDA. “One of the physiotherapists we were seeing suggested that RDA would be quite good for Rachel,” she said. “We’ve now been going for over 10 years.”

Russell explained that it is the physical and social aspects of riding with RDA that helps Rachel. Physically, riding a horse mimics the way the upper body moves when walking, stimulating upper torso muscles that otherwise go unused. Socially, the contact with both the horses and the volunteers can lead to increased confidence. “It is really nice for Rachel to spend time with the volunteers. They’re like her older sisters or friends,” Russell said. “It’s not natural for a child to spend all her time with her parents. Ordinarily, Rachel would be off doing all sorts of things with her friends, so from that point of view, her spending time with volunteers is really nice.”

Riding lessons are not only enjoyable for riders but also for their loved ones. Halliday believes that anything that benefits the riders also benefits their families. Russell, speaking from experience, agrees. “It’s not only a nice environment, it is also an informative one. Speaking to other parents who have children with disabilities and who go through the same things is really good. You learn a lot,” she said.

The horses in their stables at the Drumcarrow Equestrian Centre.  Photo: Freya Coursey.
The horses in their stables at the Drumcarrow Equestrian Centre.
Photo: Freya Coursey.

Scooniehill Chairman Steve Grist has seen first hand the good that RDA has done for the community, and he hopes to see the number of people that the program is able to provide its services to grow. Grist joined RDA just over ago after hearing about it from a neighbour. “[My neighbour] couldn’t carry on due to ill health and I thought I would volunteer to be chairman, but I kept putting it off,” he said, “Finally my wife told me stop talking about it and just do it. I’m glad I did.”

As chairman, Grist is in charge of running board of trustees meetings, during which a funding is a constant topic of discussion. “We are not funded by anybody,” he said. “All the money we raise, we have to raise it ourselves.”

RDA receives donations from both local and national trusts throughout the year and fundraises by hosting coffee mornings and can collections locally. The Scooniehill branch needs to raise a minimum of £35,000 annually in order to cover basic riding, training and maintenance. Grist’s goal for Scooniehill is to eliminate the waiting list of riders and be able to cater to everyone who is interested and suitable for the program.

Unfortunately, Grist said that the ways to expand the riding program are rather expensive. The cost of purchasing a new horse can be up to five or six thousands pounds, excluding the expenses that come with housing and caring for it. Alternatively, while adding an extra session per week for the entirety of the riding season would increase the number of available spaces in the program, it would also cost upwards of five thousand pounds. “I want us to be able to help out as many people as we can,” Grist said. “RDA provides the most rewarding experiences. When I see some of our riders up on their horses, and think about how difficult their lives may be, their expressions are priceless.”

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