Riding for the Disabled - A galloping success (by Ingrid Laurence)

No one who has ever seen the children at the Headlines Family Weekends rushing to interact with the Forest Floor Reptiles can be in any doubt that animals can offer a special sort of therapy for children.

And despite the fact that we live in inner city London, we have been lucky enough to benefit from animal-assisted therapy on a weekly basis, thanks to the Riding for the Disabled Association.

Like the other craniofacial children we have met through Headlines, my ten-year-old son Max is a bright, capable, confident little person. However, having been born with ERF-related Craniosynostosis, which often brings with it some dyspraxia-like symptoms, he benefits from extra exercises that target his upper body strength and fine motor skills.

His confidence is also sometimes dented by rude children making careless remarks about his appearance.

So every Saturday morning in term-time for the past two years we have taken Max down to the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre, where an incredible lady, Sister Mary Joy Langdon – Britain’s first female firefighter turned nun – has been offering riding tuition and stable management classes to disabled and underprivileged children for more than 25 years.

The lessons are a lovely sight to see. Children who can barely walk go trotting around the indoor riding ring with pride. Others with more complicated needs can pet the donkeys or help to groom the small ponies.

Getting Max up on a pony has done wonders for his balance, strength and grip. Now he has been riding for a couple of years, he has been progressively moved from a little Shetland pony to a sizeable horse. The ability to bond with, and to control, a large creature – not to mention being able to impress his friends who have come down to see Max take part in riding displays – have all helped his social skills, too.

It’s all very safe – experienced volunteer riders, many who have a medical background, or who work as teachers for children with special needs – help to devise the riding challenges for each child, and the children are accompanied by ‘walkers’ alongside to ensure there are no falls. As riders progress, they can take part in nationwide competitions and head out of the riding ring into the large park next door.

Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre attracts a diverse range of children with special needs – but Max is currently the only rider with a craniofacial condition. With Riding for the Disabled centres across the UK, however, it’s easy to see other craniofacial children reaping the benefits from equine therapy.

Finally, there has been one very unexpected benefit from Max attending the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre – he has met lots of visiting celebrities. Over the past year alone, he has presented a posy of flowers to Princess Anne and chatted to Clare Balding (thanks to photographer Paul H Lunnon for the photos of these visits included here). Ben Fogle has also come calling, and a couple of months ago we met Anneka Rice, whose Challenge Anneka TV programme originally built the Wormwood Scrubs riding stables.

If you would like more information about the Riding for the Disabled Association and to find your local group, visit www.rda.org.uk. For more on the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre, visit www.wormwoodscrubsponycentre.org

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