Celia Potter enjoys volunteering every week as a qualified coach for The Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) and, with your support, the Foundation is pleased to be able to assist the association further this year by donating the cost of a pony.
We caught up with Celia, who's clearly passionate about how the RDA brings so many benefits to disabled children and their families, and how much fun they have in their sessions - Baby Shark song anyone?!
How long have you been involved with the RDA and why do you volunteer with them?
Well, I started helping out when I was around 15 because my mother has worked with the Norwich and District RDA group for literally decades. She is a former regional chairman and is currently president of our group. When we lived in Norwich and my own children went to school, I started volunteering every week with them. More recently, and following 18 months of extra training, I qualified to coach and now take the group sessions every week.
I get so much pleasure from seeing what a difference RDA makes to children and their families, watching them achieve the goals we set and the pride they feel when they reach them.
Our team of volunteers are amazing, our group chairman Helen is a physio who specialises in Hippotheraphy, (that’s physiotherapy using the movement of the horse to improve health and wellbeing) and we have first aiders, safeguarding officers, a wonderful team of side helpers and horse leaders who all volunteer every week and take time out of their own busy lives. In fact, my mum is still involved and is often found running around the arena aged 78!
Of course, the ponies are true superstars - they know their job with us and are very patient with the children who are often unbalanced and can get rather excited when we are playing games. At the end of each session, they are always rewarded with lots of pats from the riders and given carrots!
Can you tell us about what a session is like for the children?
Our group at Weston Park Riding School is for 5-13 year-olds. We have six children per session and run three sessions one afternoon a week, so support 18 children. This means we also need 18 volunteers for each 40-minute session and six ponies. We do have a waiting list as the children are with us for around three years on average giving them the most benefit from riding.
There is a lot of thought involved before each session, lesson planning, arena layouts, as well as safety checks, which is extremely important. We have to think about what each child can achieve and put realistic goals in place for every rider. We also give regular training sessions to our volunteers and brief them on the lesson plan for the week ahead so they can work with the individual riders and help them all individually get the most out of their time with us.
I always start a session by asking each child how they are, and our side helpers have a conversation with the parents too, and we check the ponies and then bring the riders to the mounting block so we can get them on board safely.
The rider warms up by walking around the arena and I will give them a horse care subject to talk about with their side helpers, such as naming pieces of grooming kit, which is all relevant to the grade tests that many of the riders work towards taking.
We practice steering through cones and stopping and incorporate exercises to help with coordination, balance and strength. All the riders love to trot and we see so much improvement in their strength and balance as they progress.
We end each session with a game or two, throwing balls into buckets, putting hoops on cones and ‘What’s the time Mr Wolf’ is always very popular!
Our lessons have to be flexible as we have different ages and different disabilities in each session and we have to allow for children having an off day. The main thing is that we take it at each child’s pace and make it fun, whether it’s doing moves to Baby Shark (it helps to know what is popular on CBeebies!) or actions to Incy Wincy Spider.
One of my riders wasn’t happy about holding his reins in a lesson and, after 10 minutes of not getting very far, I remembered he loved Fireman Sam, so when I asked him to hold his hose pipes (reins) he picked them up straight away then happily steered his pony!
We also hold gymkhanas, and special Christmas and Easter rides at the end of the term.
After a session the whole team gets together for tea and most importantly cake! This gives us a chance to catch up with each other and swap notes. I write up notes for each child and we talk about how the session went. We have an amazingly dedicated team.
We work towards grades in horse care and riding and most terms our regional coach will come to assess the children who are ready to take the grade. The riders work so hard and seeing their faces when they achieve their goals and pass their grades is the best part of being a coach.
What benefits does the RDA bring?
So many, and the physical benefits include the horses gait, and as this is three dimensional and the movement resembles the pattern of the human walk, so riders unable to walk get the physical motion of walking provided by the horse. This helps to strengthen the core, improve muscle tone and balance.
The riding also boosts confidence, improves communication skills and helps build relationships with the ponies and, of course, with other people involved in the sessions. Just being around the ponies is a huge thing for these children and when they gain confidence and we see the big smiles on their faces, it’s so rewarding.
We have children with Down’s Syndrome, Epilepsy, Cerebral Palsy, Global Development Delay, Paraplegia, A.D.H.D and children who are non-verbal. There are so many people we support as an association and I am super proud to play my small part in what is an amazing association with a huge team of volunteers.
And what will the donation from Potters Friends Foundation mean?
The foundation has given us enough money to hire one Pony for a whole year which is fantastic. Donations and fundraising is incredibly important as we have to pay for the ponies, the riding school hire and all the equipment, such as hats, special reins and stirrups and countless more things to make it fun and safe for the children.
Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) is a charity supporting over 25,000 disabled children and adults with around 500 groups across the UK. RDA has 18,000 volunteers to support people with physical and learning disabilities. It provides benefits including muscle strength, balance and fitness, as well as it being therapeutic and helping improve confidence, skill development and building relationships.
To find out more about the RDA or make a donation visit https://www.rda.org.uk/