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RDA fostering special bonds

28 December 2023 Written by Sarah Marinos

Riding for the Disabled Australia builds unique bonds between horses and some very special riders. Three individuals whose lives have been deeply touched by RDA share their heartfelt experiences and the profound impact this remarkable organisation has had on them.

For nearly six decades, Riding for the Disabled Association of Australia has been a source of support for individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities, offering them the pure delight of horse riding.

In Victoria, RDA operates 35 centres across metropolitan and regional areas, providing opportunities for recreational riding, therapeutic riding, carriage driving, and equestrian competitions, empowering riders to enhance their equestrian skills.

Among the newest facilities is the Pakenham centre where the VRC generously funded the state-of-the-art Subzero Arena, named in honour of the 1992 Melbourne Cup champion. Many of these centres, including the 25-acre site in Pakenham, are blessed with a devoted team of volunteers who passionately care for both the horses and the riders.

The Coach 

Mary Longden is an RDAA Life Member, Level 2 Coach and National Assessor who has been part of the Association for more than 40 years. Mary began riding as a child and so began a lifelong passion for equestrian. She has coached the Canadian and Australian Paralympic Equestrian teams and teaches coaches how to work with riders with disabilities.

I was young when I went to my local riding school in England. My skills gradually developed and so I went to pony club and got my own pony. My mother volunteered with Riding for the Disabled so I was aware of the organisation a long time ago.

When I moved to Australia, I taught children how to ride and win competitions but I became more interested in therapeutic riding and completed a Master of Special Education. Horses increase our quality of life and that should be an option available to people with disabilities, too.

We support people with physical disability, intellectual disability, those on the autism spectrum and people who are blind or blind and deaf. There are no limitations – as long as a doctor says it’s not to their detriment, anyone can ride with us.

We have one six-year-old girl who has been with us for several months and we’ve worked on strengthening her neck muscles so can hold up her head as she rides. Although she does not speak, it’s wonderful to see the communication between her and the horse. The horse always sniffs her to say hello and then she lays over the horse and is very happy – they have built a strong connection.

We also have two riders on the autistic spectrum. One of them has poor coordination, but since she began riding her balance and confidence have improved. Her younger sibling didn’t speak when she first came to us but now she talks and makes eye contact and is very excited to ride. Witnessing transformations like that has kept me interested for all these years.

I also see how much family’s lives benefit when their child rides with us because when people come to RDA, we focus on what their loved one can do – not what they can’t do. For us, riding is all about possibilities and opportunities.”

The Rider 

Stella Barton joined Riding for the Disabled Victoria when she was seven and her talent was spotted by Mary Longden. Stella has cerebral palsy and is a Grade 1 para rider – meaning she has the highest level of impairment – but this year she represented Australia at the Hartpury Festival of Dressage in England and is aiming for the Paralympic Games next year.

“I first rode with RDA Victoria at the police barracks in South Melbourne until the group moved to Collingwood Children’s Farm. Mum was always looking for activities for me that were fun and also helped with my physical functionality. She watched me ride a horse for the first time and thought my head was going to fall off because I was so wobbly!

I loved being around horses though and looked forward to my weekly lesson with the RDA volunteers. RDA helped me begin my riding career and develop my physical strength and stability. It was also fun at a time in my life when I was carted around to a lot of physio and medical appointments.

One day Mary watched me ride and told me I had potential to ride at a higher level. That’s how I came to train with Sally Francis at Tooradin Estate who has been a big part of my journey.

All four of my limbs are affected by my disability but I compete at CPEDI level – the international para-equestrian level of competition. One of my greatest achievements has been competing at Hartpury Festival of Dressage in England. That was my first overseas competition and I felt so proud to represent Australia. From being that wobbly girl at RDA at the police barracks to riding for Australia was a dream come true.

My ultimate dream is to represent Australia at the Paralympic Games. I’m on the long list for Paris so there’s definitely a chance for me.”

The Volunteer

When she retired and moved from Melbourne to regional Victoria, Liz Ellison rediscovered her love of horses by volunteering with RDA. She’s a familiar face at the Pakenham centre where she looks after the horses and is studying for her first coaching certificate. Her husband, Ken, is a volunteer handyman at the centre.

“I saw a Facebook ad asking for volunteers to support the RDA. My husband and I are retired and moved out of suburbia to a five-acre block near Pakenham. I had horses all my life until my three children came along. They’ve grown up and so when I saw the RDA ad, it sounded ideal for me.

I began riding when I was eight and did shows, pony club, cross country, 3-day events and dressage. I only had time for school and horses! But then I had my family and I sold my last horse in 1986. Now and again friends and I would pay to go on bush rides but there really wasn’t much time for riding.

My riding days are over, but I love being around horses. I began volunteering one day a week but now it’s more like three or four days. I’m rostered to feed and check the horses on certain days and I also exercise them twice a week. I lunge them, brush them and saddle them up for the riders.

Seeing the big smiles on the faces of the kids when they ride is amazing.

In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen so many improvements in the children’s physical and mental health. One of the little girls who rides here has physical and mental disabilities and she’s gradually learned to lie down on the horse and lift her head. With people on either side to support her, she’s now able to sit up and the horse knows her and nuzzles her. Those are the kinds of things that riding can do – it’s very powerful.”