Wānaka Sun       

Not just horsing around

Posted at 6:00am Friday 03 Jan, 2020 | By Francesca Maria Nespolo journalist@thewanakasun.co.nz

There are many quiet heroes in the Wānaka district who serve the community without fanfare or fuss. Wānaka Riding for the Disabled is one such group of committed volunteers who have been operating for over ten years, offering a chance for people with disabilities to enjoy the freedom and physical challenge of riding a horse. 

WRDA operates at Waterfall Equestrian Center on Mt Aspiring Road. The owner of the center, Carol Armstrong, has been volunteering since day one. 

The group of 19 riders and 16 volunteers including two qualified coaches are part of the organisation, "New Zealand Riding for The Disabled (NZRDA)". The riders, which range in age group from five years old to 75 years old are affected by all sorts of disabilities — and not just physical. RDA caters to people with mental health issues such as depression, to learning and developmental difficulties such as autism and dyspraxia.  

A potential rider needs to contact the WRDA and complete the application form, which includes a medical certificate before they can be accepted into the program. Sessions are held on Thursdays during the warmer weather of terms one and four. 

Riding sessions generally take place in the arena, although sometimes the group heads off on a trail ride through the vineyards. Programs vary for every age, teaching riding skills, balance, posture and following instructions. “It's not just riding ponies, it's learning skills with a qualified coach,'' said Kay Ross, coordinator for WRDA. The riders also enjoy competitions between other participants. “The riders get stronger, gain confidence and increase overall self-esteem, with noticeable improvements in their social skills. There is a therapeutic interaction between the rider and the horse,” said Ross.

Armstrong chooses the horses that are suitable for the riders, generally the most sensitive ones as they seem to be way more patient. “Horses have some sort of therapeutic way to help disabled riders. Even those who sometimes have trouble connecting with people can connect through an animal. These people sometimes arrive at riding unhappy or not speaking to anyone, but once they have been on a horse, they can become totally different. They are smiling, they are happy,” said Armstrong. 

One example was a rider who had been in an accident. “In the beginning, it took five of us to get him on the horse, but now, one of us is enough,” said Armstrong. The progress has been slow but very rewarding. 

Another had suffered a stroke. She used to ride when she was younger and as part of her therapy, she was recommended to return to horse riding. Her stroke had damaged her ability to speak and dramatically affected her ability to balance herself. “The rider compared it to walking on a sphere, but after the riding sessions this improved a great deal. There is a lot of research currently underway but nothing yet is conclusive,” she said. 

These success stories give an incredible motivation for the volunteers to give their time week after week. Volunteers have all sorts of duties: from greeting the rider and getting them ready, to leading horse, while another volunteer walks beside the rider keeping visual or physical contact. “We always welcome new volunteers,” said Ross. 

The WRDA is a charity organisation and is financed by fundraising, grants and donations, without which they could not continue to operate.



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