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Riding for the Disabled: A community of care and support

4 June 2024 Written by Tanya Twaits & Celia Purdey

Riding for the Disabled Association of Victoria (RDAV), founded in 1970, has been a community-driven not-for-profit organisation for over 50 years. It works tirelessly to bring the therapy, sense of achievement, and fun of horses to as many people with disabilities as possible.

RDAV is an inclusive and diverse organisation, welcoming participants aged 3 to 65 with a wide range of disabilities, including physical and intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, and degenerative conditions, each with unique needs and goals.

This year, across its 34 centres in Victoria, 1000 incredible volunteers and 255 horses and ponies will help more than 500 participants experience the joy of interacting with these beautiful animals. The programs, which include riding, carriage driving, and groundwork, are designed to be inclusive and cater to the needs of diverse participants.

Horses are the cornerstone of RDAV, with horse welfare and safety as primary focuses. Each centre requires a variety of horses and ponies of different sizes to carefully match the riders’ needs and abilities. If a suitable horse is not available, the rider cannot join the program. The horses are carefully selected for their temperament, obedience, and calmness to handle the unique challenges posed by their riders, such as unbalanced riders, loud noises, and wheelchairs.

With their calming presence, horses help participants learn new skills, follow instructions, gain confidence, build strength, interact with others, and enjoy the freedom of movement. They also help participants find a sense of calm and wellbeing.

One heartwarming story from the RDAV community features a rider named Fiona and her horse, Snoopy. Thirteen years ago, Fiona was introduced to Snoopy, a four-year-old ex-racehorse acquired by a friend. He needed lots of groundwork, TLC, and training in social skills and riding aids. Although Fiona initially intended to sell him, she fell hopelessly in love with his personality.

One day, while riding next to a train line, Fiona found herself stuck between a speeding 100 km/h train and a barbed-wire fence with nowhere to escape. She dismounted and held tight, and Snoopy stood calmly, watching the train speed past. At that moment, Fiona knew he was special. She began training Snoopy for RDAV, and despite a challenging start, Snoopy adapted perfectly to each rider and continues to enjoy his fortnightly trips to RDAV, walking and trotting around the yard.

RDAV fosters a family atmosphere where volunteers, riders, and their families come together, united by a shared love for horse riding and its profound benefits. For individuals with disabilities, horse riding offers a unique opportunity to compete and excel in ways that other sports might not allow. Young adults eagerly anticipate their weekly sessions, their faces lighting up as they engage in an activity that levels the playing field. This inclusive environment is crucial in boosting their confidence and providing a sense of accomplishment.

“It changes their life. They get to learn how to ride, socialise with everybody out here, and bond with the horse. I think that’s very important.” - RDAV Coach Fiona

Craig Bath expressed how deeply horse riding has impacted their life, taking pride in their achievements and cherishing the personal significance of each ride. “Horse riding’s been very good to me. It means a lot to me, and I’m very proud of what I’m doing.”

Parents, too, witness remarkable changes in their children. Horse riding provides focus, fosters friendships with peers who share similar needs, and creates a supportive network that extends beyond the stables. “His horse riding gives him a quality of life, [and] that gives him a focus. He also has friends; they’ve got similar needs to Luke, and they all work together and support each other,” said one parent, highlighting the profound impact on their child’s social life and wellbeing.

Riding also provides a sense of freedom, builds confidence, and teaches valuable skills.

The bond between rider and horse is particularly special, highlighting the therapeutic benefits of these animals.

Volunteers, some starting as young as 12, also find immense joy and fulfilment. They build strong bonds with the riders and each other, contributing to a vibrant, supportive community. The transformation seen in riders – who often arrive feeling down and leave with big smiles and in relaxed spirits – is a testament to the therapeutic power of this program.

“This organisation really brings people together … it enriches lives,” said Tanya Twaits RDAV President. “Not only for the volunteers, but for the riders that they work with and the horses that they’re taking care of; it’s a real sense of community which is wonderful.”

Riding for the Disabled is a beautiful example of community spirit, providing a sense of togetherness and mutual support.

For those seeking to make a positive impact, joining Riding for the Disabled means contributing to the community and becoming part of something truly extraordinary.