Horse riding can have huge benefits for people with disabilities

RDA regional chairman, Sheila Saner (centre) with helpers, (L-R); Vicky Evans, Pauline Wooding, Reb

RDA regional chairman, Sheila Saner (centre) with helpers, (L-R); Vicky Evans, Pauline Wooding, Rebecca Hurst and Wendy Sanders and disabled riders, Debbie Anderson (left) on 'Queenie' and Sarah Underwood on 'Jezz' in the indoor riding school at Beechley Stables, Harthill Rd., Liverpool - Credit: Archant

Riding a horse is second nature to many people but for someone who spends their life in a wheelchair, the thrill of being on horseback can be life-changing.

RDA regional chairman, Sheila Saner, with NW regional coach, Kate Bailey and regional vice-president

RDA regional chairman, Sheila Saner, with NW regional coach, Kate Bailey and regional vice-president, Jean Carter with pony 'Corrie' - Credit: Archant

The Riding for the Disabled Association gives hundreds of people across Cheshire the chance to experience the joy of horse riding. Not only does it give them a sense of freedom and excitement, it also helps to build muscle, improve coordination and develop personal skills

The nationwide organisation runs just under 500 groups and the 23 groups in the North West last year helped about 1200 people into the saddle.

Sheila Saner, the association’s national deputy chairman who lives near Nantwich, has been involved with the charity for more than 30 years. She said: ‘It’s quite magical to see people developing and achieving things that might not have been thought possible of them and it is such a thrill to be able to help them to do these new things.

‘They need a bit of fun because often a lot of their lives are cosseted and they have lots of things done for them. The slogan of the Riding for the Disabled Association is “It’s what you can do that counts’ and I think that’s ideal. We don’t look at the disability, but the ability, and we help people to fulfil their dreams.”’

Sheila was brought up in Kent but moved to Liverpool for a job with Tate and Lyle in her early 20s. A keen rider with the Pony Club, she volunteered at an RDA centre in the city and went on to be a Cheshire county coach and training advisor, then a regional coach, then regional chairman before she was voted in as the national deputy chairman.

‘Going along to the RDA group was like joining a family, it wasn’t daunting at all and we have grown together,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to feel that you are doing some good for someone else. We do so much for ourselves but to see the benefits for other riders is so rewarding . It’s incredible what people can achieve. There are often tears of joy when you see what someone has achieved.

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‘It’s so rewarding for the volunteers and the benefits for the riders are enormous – it helps build muscles and if you’re in a wheelchair most of the time that is so important; if you don’t have a decent set of legs, get on a horse and suddenly you have four legs under you; if you’re short, get on a horse and suddenly you’re looking down on everyone else. People can touch and stroke the horses and can develop a bond with the horse which they might find difficult to develop with other people. It also builds confidence and coordination, so it can help physically and psychologically.’

And while 1200 people benefitted from the chance to ride at RDA centres around the North West last year, many others could take part if there were more volunteers to help out.

‘We don’t have any age limits, the only restriction on our participants is weight. We try to take everyone but we have groups with waiting lists of people who want to ride,’ added Sheila, who has lived in Nantwich for more than 20 years and now has three children and seven grandchildren.

‘The horses are there seven days a week but we don’t have the volume of volunteers to be able to offer more. We always need volunteers, even people who don’t like horses – there’s all sorts of roles, from helping with the horses, to admin roles and fundraising.’

The groups don’t just offer dressage, there’s the chance to take part in carriage driving, showjumping and other disciplines as well. Most riders in the British Paralympic teams started at an RDA group and riders are now monitored and tracked with the most promising offered chances to compete and to take their involvement to the next level.

When someone new attends a group for the first time they will spend time watching others ride and getting used to being around horses and to wearing the hard hat before they are helped into the saddle. When they do ride for the first time it will be a gentle walk in a straight line until they relax and start to feel more comfortable.

Over time the participants can also be involved in grooming and caring for the horses, who has two retired RDA ponies called Peggy and Charlie at home, said: ‘We don’t want retired horses that aren’t active, we want young horses we can train to do a very special job.

‘We find our horses all over the country and we can tell within a few minutes if a horse is going to be suitable for us. The horses are so special because they have to tolerate quite a lot and be so patient. Finding the right horses can be difficult and they are worth their weight in gold.

‘They seem to understand that there’s something a bit different about the riders at our groups and ponies that usually canter about can stand still. They also seem to sense when a rider might be about to have a fit and slow down or stop even before anyone else knows about it.’ w

To volunteer for the Riding for the Disabled Association, contact Sheila at