Five things you should know about Riding for the Disabled (RDA)

18th June 2019

How do you take a lawyer beyond their usual comfort zone? Maybe give them a practical task like helping children with severe disabilities to enjoy the benefits of Riding for the Disabled (RDA).

Much of our specialist work concerns clients who suffer from cerebral palsy.  In many instances our clients have impaired mobility because of weakness and excess tone in the muscles of their legs.  There are other difficulties too; arms affected, weak core muscles, problems with communicating and problems with balance and posture.

Parents worry what activities their children can access.  Options that might have come naturally seem to be ruled out but RDA is an activity that can definitely be ruled in.  I have spent the last three years helping at the Kingston branch of RDA (now merged).  Aside from it being absolutely brilliant to help out, the responsibility is scary, it really made me think too.  Is RDA therapeutic, is it more than just a fun experience, can it be a rewarding long term choice for children and adults with disabilities to put their time and energy in to.

It has been recognised that coaching and performance in individuals shows that a structured approach to training can actually enhance pathways in the nervous system, building up nerve function like a gym builds muscle strength.  In cerebral palsy, there is damage to the nerve cells, linings and pathways.  This causes slower conduction times, reduces precision in movements and creates imbalance of muscles.  Over the years, there are harmful secondary effects on the body; to posture/ spine and joints are affected, sometimes leading to the need for operations on hips and spine.

How to try to maximise function?  How to prevent these changes?  How to find activities that are enjoyable and rewarding?  RDA gives such an opportunity.

You will need to find a local RDA; often they are linked up with specialist schools.  Case managers and specialist physiotherapists may well know where to recommend.

At Kingston, the children arrive in a nice brightly coloured bus.  On the yard there a lots of exciting things, rows of stables, interesting people, lovely shiny horses, enthusiastic ponies and the routine things, the hay, the straw, the muck heap!  Even the smells are interesting, horses, fresh air, dogs, tack – perhaps not the muck heap.

The ponies are ready in the indoor arena, nice and sheltered on a windy day, nice and dry on a wet day; little round ponies with names like Bramble or a bigger, taller horse called Dublin stand patiently, tacked up.  Basics first – and the most essential is a hat, that fits.  Hat fitting is not a popular thing for the children and various faces are made.  Some of them fiddle with the straps and want to tug it away, whilst others do not mind.  Eventually we get there.

Safety is paramount and skilled helpers are on hand.  A big chart lists:  rider; their hat size; one person for leading the horse; one helper for the left side; and one helper for the right side.  Children having the right clothing is good – thick stretchy trousers and enough layers on the top half to keep warm.  Not many of the children turn up with gloves – always bring gloves in my view – gloves are good.  Stopping little fingers from being cold and stiff is a big help.

The ponies have some special equipment:  stirrups have cups at the front so feet cannot poke right through; a second set of reins is fitted which has rubber grips, colour coded in bright red, green and yellow so with a bit of help the child can know just where to hold them.  Mounting up is done from a long block with steps at the end.  With a few adjustments the horse is close up to the block.  One of the helpers stands on the block too and guides the child – left foot in left stirrup first, the leader holds the horse at the front and the other helper stands waits to help the child into the saddle.  After heading for the middle of the arena there is then a bit of sorting out; feet in stirrups, stirrups to the right length, girth tightened, especially on little round ponies, and off we go!  There are generally three horses in this lesson, one instructor in the middle and row of children sit to the side with their teacher, waiting for their turns.

The school is laid out with letters around the arena in the usual formal way “A, K, E, H etc” – remembered by “All King Edward’s Horses etc”.  In the middle of the school are five stripy poles on the ground.  Around the school walls are the mirrors the other riders use to help them practice.  By a fortunate co-incidence, this means that the children can see themselves on the ponies.

Allowing for hat measuring time and getting on and off times, the session may be three quarters of an hour long.  Within that up to 10 children may ride in two to three sittings.  There are big smiles as the children ride round.  Encouraging core strength is important to help absorb the movement of the horse.  Leaning or spine collapsing is uncomfortable.  There are happy waves to friends as the ponies go past.

There are exercises – hands out like an aeroplane, pretend to swim, touch the pony’s ears, hands on heads, touch your knees or patting the pony.  Those letters round the school give the chance for knowing where to stop, with a big “Whoa…” and chance to think up words for each letter – “E for Elephant” – A for Apple”.  Rows of bollards on the sides give the chance for steering as the ponies swivel through them.  Poles in the middle give the chance for focus and for the ponies to pick their feet up, with riders counting the poles each time, following on from before.

Finally its time for grandmother’s footsteps, on horse-back.  The instructor walks on, the ponies follow walking on too.  Suddenly the instructor turns and it’s a big “Whoa…” as the brakes go on.  The situation repeats itself and keeps on going until we see who is the winner at the other end of the arena.  Little ponies find surprising reserves of enthusiasm as the helpers want their pony to win.

Getting off needs to be done carefully.  Legs can be stuck half way and tummies can get pressed on the saddle during the descent.  Once the rider is off they often like to pat the pony and say thank you for their nice ride.

Many of the children ride once per week.  Each time they become more confident.  I would encourage people to think of this worthwhile and fun activity, with potentially therapeutic benefits for the children.  They have great fun.  I have never seen such big smiles.

And finally, here are the five things to remember: –

  1. Ask the school, case manager or physiotherapists if you want a recommendation for a local centre that does RDA;
  2. Have appropriate clothing;
  3. Gloves are good (lots of people don’t know this);
  4. Grandmother’s footsteps is great (lots of people may not know this); and
  5. RDA – give it a try!

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