I am support worker to people with high dependency disabilities. A combination of physical, sensory and learning difficulties. Our service users get to watch a lot of events, but their complex needs mean they rarely get to participate in activities. My job is to change that.
Two of the gentlemen I support love horses. We do have a riding for the disabled centre near their residential home, but it hasn’t any facility for wheelchair users, which these two are. I was asked to hunt down a holiday that both chaps could enjoy one that was inclusive, something they could actively take part in.
One of the places I posted for ideas was Concordia, the group thoughtful equestrians – friends of Concordia. Pammy Hutton responded and very generously offered to put on a dressage to music display for the lads at her centre the Talland School of Equitation. We were stunned by this and obviously, readily bit off her hand. It was a few months later when the trip actually went ahead, but the offer still stood. Pippa Hutton said she would ride the display herself. Well, she went a bit further than that. Pippa brought over her horse ‘Enjoy’ for a quick chat with us, she showed off their moves while we were welcome to take pictures, then she came for a meet and greet, where Enjoy stood like a rock as our gentlemen patted him and talked to him. She took photos from the saddle of the lads at the horses head and then, to make sure we had missed nothing, rode the display a second time for us and invited us to wander around the stables and meet the other horses – so of course we had to meet them all. Nearly 80 on the yard in total.
There are quite a few facilities in the UK that cater for people with additional needs, be it horses that can cope with a hyperactive or hypermobile person, or that are great around those who are frail, unbalanced or nervous riders, some have wheelchair enabled carriages. Less, offer opportunities for people with all of the above needs on top of suitable accommodation. But, The Calvert Trust in Exmoor does. And then some.
We booked their horse immersion weekend. A 3 night stay where we would ‘have’ a horse, groom, help tack up, drive, play games and bond with others. Where we would not be outsiders, regarded as difficult, where we would not be stared at and where our needs would not be regarded as a problem to solve.
The weather was foul and our drive from Talland in Cirencester was impaired by hail, snow, rain, roadworks and very heavy traffic – it was JUNE!!!! We missed the team meeting, arriving in time to scarf down food (for those of us who still eat orally), scrub up and dive into bed. The next morning we had breakfast in the dining room and went straight to the yard. The horses had been brought in from their lakeside fields where they sleep, and were in day stables. The horses, instructors, team of volunteers and the yard were incredible. Knowledgeable, enthusiastic, professional but friendly. We were initially given a horse each to brush and cuddle, but it was obvious within minutes that while Simon was doing just fine with Lucky, Peter did not have the dexterity to join in. The staff noticed and immediately brought out Pilgrim, a miniature Shetland pony. Pilgrim was completely at ease around wheelchairs and practically climbed on Peter’s knee, he rubbed against the chair and offered Peter some grooming from a pony instead. Cue huge grins and giggles.
The majority of the immersion group were more able bodied than our guys, so as their horses got tacked up, they made their way to the indoor school for a ride. We were using the wheelchair adapted carriage. We were going out into the park. We, were super excited. The staff showed our chaps the harness, letting them inspect different parts to appreciate the weight and the feel of the tack, while they explained simply what each piece did, they harnessed Lucky up and checked the safety release mechanism. Then with a bit of grunt, we loaded Simon up the ramp beside the driver, gave him a pair of secondary reins and they were off, escorted by one of our own support staff and another 2 people from the Trust. Peter and I went to watch the riders, all of whom waved and called to us from the accessible viewing gallery when they passed us. After lunch, Simon and Peter switched places. We began steadily with lots of audio input to make sure the ground conditions and turns were anticipated so that Peter felt confident and safe. Watching his face light up was very, very moving indeed. Once everyone was back together and the horses were untacked, we had a treasure hunt in pairs to identify, collect and make a pile of tack and yard items, it made carnage on the yard and everyone had fun.
That evening there was a small disco in the entertainments hall, our group rearranged the furniture to make sure both wheelchairs fitted where everyone else was sitting, all the different families danced together with us. Both Simon and Peter fell asleep very quickly, and both woke up full of beans and eager for more.
On day 2 we found a family waiting at the central wheelchair-ease dining tables, wanting to join us for breakfast, something we never have on holiday. Our intense focus, loud banter and generally different but necessary, table etiquette, usually segregates us. But not here.
Back on the yard, the horses were in the stables and waiting. Like the day before, we prepped our horses, the younger riders decorated hooves with glitter and put glittery quarter markers on their horses, before going to the school for pony club games. We were driving again. While Peter went on a longer drive around the park, Simon and I stayed behind to watch the riders. He was invited to start all the races. There was extravagant clapping, cheering and whooping. Little girls who had not ever had the chance to race, were waving flags and bouncing around in sheer delight on their ponies, equally adults were grinning from ear to ear trying to outdo them. Often people with disabilities are patronised, given no real test, no proper chance to compete but have a go and are called the winner. It’s not the same.
Before we knew it, a face appeared in the gallery to call for Simon. He was up that ramp in no time, knowing now what to expect and cooperating as much as he could. We went off further into the park, near the reservoir, past dogs, cars and children, Lucky being an absolute star, nothing phasing her and getting lots of encouragement and praise from the highly attentive staff. At one point, there was a long trotting stretch. I couldn’t keep up, so I hung back with one of the staff and let Simon go on ahead with the go-pro on his helmet, they turned around and trotted back down to us shortly after. Once we had toured the park, Simon went into the outdoor arena and did some scurry driving around cones, again his delighted squeals and whooping could be heard all around. When we drove back up to the yard, the rest of the group had waited and were clapping and cheering us on.
We untacked the horses and thought our time was up, but there was another surprise. A small agility course was set out on the yard. Pilgrim was brought out to a starting block and everybody took a turn racing around doing slaloms, a ramp, small steps, a platform and a controlled stop in a box. Pilgrim had miniature hoof boots on to protect against concussion from repeated runs on the concrete. Of course, as with everything else at the Calvert, Simon and Peter each had a go at agility, in turn, holding the rope themselves as and their other carer and I ran, pushing the wheelchairs. Peter won. His first true race against other people, with no concessions. He won a real, fair race. And Boy did he like that taste of success. He received a standing ovation and a rosette, then everyone received a certificate of competence and participation.
We had a live band in the evening, sitting and dancing in our group like we were old friends. We exchanged email addresses, took pictures and by morning there were some emotional goodbyes. Our chaps though, were not done. Before heading home, we visited the Exmoor Pony Centre in Dulverton, where we met some beautiful and very friendly moorland ponies and bagged ourselves a few souvenirs then took a leisurely drive through the national park, where we spotted semi feral herds, mares, foals and stallions, happily drifting across the commons, perfectly relaxed when we hopped out and took a few photographs.
Few horses make the grade for RDA, about 1:10. They need a natural disposition for this kind of work, then a world of training and a little more care than the average riding horse, constantly working with people who have little mobility and balance and who may have emotional anxieties too. However, places exist, like the Trust in Exmoor where horse lovers of any age and ability level, can actively join in sessions of riding, driving and horse care. Horses really are for everyone.