Riding proud

Story & photos by Andrea Louise Thomas

Horses can read body language and intuit feelings. They are keenly sensitive, highly intelligent and exceptionally patient (and humans do test their patience). They are forgiving, adaptable and have wonderful individual personalities. These are some of the many qualities that Carmel Powell, President of the Peninsula branch of RDA (Riding for the Disabled) loves about horses. It’s also why they are the ultimate therapy animal facilitating healing of the body, mind and spirit. 

Powell knows a great deal about horses as she grew up on a farm in New Zealand. She started riding when she was eight and has spent her entire career working with horses. This makes her perfectly placed to lead the team of volunteers who work with the horses and children at RDA Peninsula. She’s volunteered with RDA for 10 years now and has a wealth of knowledge to share. 

Volunteers can start at any point from total novices still in high school to seasoned riders and professional trainers. Every volunteer is provided with training so that he/she feels totally confident before beginning. There is so much a volunteer can learn and many rewards. Skills are gained, bonds are built, friendships are made and lives are changed.  

RDA’s mission is to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to enjoy therapeutic horse riding and horse related activities providing a safe, healthy, stimulating, enjoyable experience for all. Programs include: early intervention, horsemanship, mounted activities and hippotherapy, as well as strength and coordination exercises. All activities are tailor-made for each rider by accredited coaches in consultation with physiotherapists.

Riding improves focus, attention span, balance, core strength, coordination, muscle development and fitness. Working with horses helps develops self-esteem, pride, confidence, empathy and trust. Riders gain a sense of control, experience leadership, feel challenge and achievement whilst improving communication skills. Most importantly, they enjoy the experience.

“The smiles on the children’s faces, the laughter, the happy tears of the volunteers when a child does something they were told they could never do – these are the rewards of working with RDA,” says Powell. While the bond between the children and the horses is evident, the work that is taking place below the surface is not as obvious, but equally important. “There is a body-brain connection taking place all the time. Just holding the reins and turning the horse requires hand-eye coordination, balance, attention, focus and trust,” Powell says. 

“The kids don’t have to think about moving – the horse does all the work, but it’s not passive exercise – they are exercising without realising it,” she adds. Through RDA, she has seen miraculous changes. Parents, who were told their child would never walk, saw that child walk and children who were diagnosed as non-verbal started to speak after working with the horses. These results may not be scientifically provable, but the outcomes are obvious.

Trust between the leader and the horse is paramount. The leader communicates directly with the horse and must be 100% focused on the horse as it is always providing signals to the leader, such as ear position. If the horse’s ears are back, it is not comfortable. If the ears are forward, the horse is relaxed. Reading these kinds of cues are very important for the safety of all. Sometimes there is also a volunteer (side-walker) who talks to the rider providing reassurance and support. Communication is critical. 

Each horse and rider is carefully matched. Depending on the disability, a horse may be chosen for its particular walk. A horse with a rolling gait is especially good for building core strength whereas a horse with a flat walk might better suit a rider with different needs. Usually the physiotherapist will set a goal for the child to achieve and the leader will choose exercises to meet that goal. Goal setting and continual evaluation are keys to success.

At RDA the philosophy is that anyone can ride a horse. Getting on and off can be tricky, but there is special equipment if needed. Volunteers usually lead the horse with the rider, but then there are those magic moments when the rider trots off independently feeling a sense of enormous achievement, but regardless of rider ability, they are achieving something important every time they ride.

In fact, the only difficulty Powell finds at RDA is sourcing new volunteers. No special training is required. The coaches will teach volunteers everything they need to know. Anyone who loves children and animals, wants to improve the quality of life for children with special needs, enjoys working in a team and has good communication skills is welcome to volunteer. 

RDA Peninsula is located on a private property in Moorooduc. Generous donations from the community and dedicated volunteers have helped to build a first class riding facility. There are currently ten horses of different sizes, breeds and temperaments ready to be saddled. Giddy-up!

RDA Peninsula is part of an Australia-wide voluntary, non-profit organisation. There are currently 38 centres across Victoria.

First published in Peninsula Essence – May 2019