By Crystal Bevan.
“HORSE. FUN”, a little girl is using a communication device, an iPhone around her neck, to vocalize her excitement. She is disabled and is about to commandeer an animal over three times her size. She is assisted by ‘side walkers’, volunteers who walk alongside the horse to help her keep balanced, to get seated on top of a saddle pad as she holds onto handle bars that have been mounted on the horse.
The volunteers help the young rider to keep still and focused as she uses hand gestures, like pointing forward, to signal that she wants to ‘walk on’ – known in verbal horse training as walking forward. The riding coach who is leading the horse offers her a red circle and a green circle to pick from, and she delightedly picks a green circle to continue walking around the indoor arena. This entire time the excitement is clear from the smile on her face.
For many children like this young girl the Pegasus Riding for the Disabled offers children the ability to form meaningful relationships with horses. For children with more severe disabilities it can give them the feeling of walking and build up core muscular strength to improve their day to day life.
One young rider, Jordan, has Rett Syndrome. Rett Syndrome is a neurological disorder that causes babies to regress, unable to crawl, walk or communicate. Jordan’s mother Kelly explains that “It is like she’s in a bubble. She can see everything, hear everything. She might want something or can see something but she can’t tell me that she wants it, if she’s had enough, or if she wants more!”
When Jordan started horse riding at Pegasus, Kelly noticed an improvement in Jordan’s core muscles as she was able to sit up straight and put her hands at the front of the horse for a short period of time. For Jordan, it’s an opportunity to build up the strength needed to walk, and Kelly can see the joy her daughter gets out of horse riding. “On the horse, Jordan is ‘walking’ and that’s something she can’t do; she’s moving and she’s feeling that experience of actually moving.”
Gail, who has been volunteering with Pegasus for a year, remarks on how much horse riding can improve the quality of life for disabled children. “There’s the confidence it builds, they’re controlling these huge animals. In everyday life they’re being assisted by people all the time so it’s awesome that they’re able to do that. It’s an independence that they don’t usually have. To see the kids that come that are totally ‘worms’ and we get them to sit nice and still and focus. It’s great to see the change, just in one term you see the difference.”
Therapy for volunteers too
Volunteers are an important aspect of Pegasus, looking after the horses and doing the stable work, tending to the gardens, as well as assisting riding coaches as ‘side walkers’ during lessons. For these volunteers, Pegasus can be as therapeutic as it is for the riders they work with.
Paul has been volunteering with Pegasus for over ten years, starting work in the gardens and progressing to working with children in lessons in his second year. Now he spends “most days of the week here doing different things and different jobs”. For Paul, Pegasus offered him a new start after he couldn’t work.
“I was informed that I was not employable, the insurance company wouldn’t insure me as I had too many pre-existing injuries. I was sort of thrown on the scrap heap. I got a bit depressed, and my mother said, ‘why don’t you do something voluntary’. Which I sort of scoffed at, at first. Then I came to the Pegasus open day thinking I’d have a look. I spoke to some people there then and started in the gardens in a couple of weeks. I went from there to doing the classes and it’s just snowballed.”
Paul is now in his eleventh year at Pegasus and recommends volunteering to anyone. “I’d recommend it to anybody, especially to retirees who are looking for something to do. It pays you back, ten times more than what you put into it, it really does.”
Pegasus is a beneficial organisation for both riders and their volunteers. As Paul says, “there’s that feeling of good because you are helping somebody. I don’t think I’ve worked with a child who doesn’t really love it, in all the time that I’ve been here.”