Horses and hope

Northside Riding Club is one of the oldest equestrian clubs in Sydney, with over 300 members of all ages.

One of these members is a young woman named Sam*.

She has cerebral palsy and suffered a serious brain injury at the age of seven which exacerbated her condition.

Sam loves horses, and riding gives her a joy and feeling of independence like no other. But it is not easy for her to live out her dream.

She falls over trying to mount her horse. There is no flat pathway for her to navigate around Princess Anne Equestrian Arena, the section of St Ives Showground where Northside members ride. The nearest accessible toilets are over one kilometre away.

Now, thanks to a joint effort between Northside, the NSW government and Ku-ring-gai Council, her life has been made much easier.

St Ives Showground has added new facilities to assist riders with a disability, making it eligible to host equestrian training for the 2020 Paralympic games.

The $185,000 facilities include accessible toilets and an accessible pathway from the Princess Anne Equestrian Arena to the remainder of the Showground.

Jennifer Berryman, Vice President of Northside Riding Club, was delighted to find the new facilities had already made a difference in the life of the Club’s disabled members.

“I saw Sam the other day she said she feels much more secure and confident walking around down here,” she said.

Northside led the push for new facilities after disabled riders started to frequent the grounds, however it did not happen overnight.

“Initially when we were talking to the council about it, they said ‘Well can’t you just put somebody in a car and drive them to the toilet?’,” said Ms. Berryman.

“The whole point of having para-equestrians riding independently is to give them their independence, so having to ask someone to drive them to the toilet is not good.”

As well as contributing funds out of their own pocket, Northside was able to secure two grants from the NSW government and funding from Ku-ring-gai Council.

“It really felt like the planets completely aligned and suddenly we had the money, we had council staff willing to help us with the work and it all happened this year,” Ms. Berryman said.

Making showgrounds more accessible is a priority for disabled riders everywhere, including former Paralympians.

Paraequestrian Jan Pike lives with severe cerebral palsy.

She won a silver and bronze medal at the 2004 Paralympic Games for dressage events. She also competed in the 2008 Games.

Her most significant challenge is mounting on and off her horses as she needs to use a ramp that is level with their backs.

“Not many places have this facility nor realise the impact of a stressful mount to both riders and horses,” Ms. Pike said.

In addition to the new toilets and pathway, the new facilities at St Ives Showground include a raised structure to assist riders to mount and dismount safely from a wheelchair.

Ms. Pike praised the move and hopes to see more larger showgrounds add accessible facilities.

“Not just showgrounds but equestrian, and in fact, all sporting venues,” she said.

Ms. Pike is part of an entire community of disabled riders.

Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) is a worldwide not-for-profit organisation specifically created to assist riders living with a disability.

The organisation began after Lis Hartel, a Danish polio victim who was usually confined to a wheelchair, won a silver medal for dressage at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.

After her brave act, Riding for the Disabled centres appeared in countries across the Western world, with the first Australian group established in 1964.

Ms. Pike, who is an Honorary Director and Executive Officer at the RDA NSW branch, acknowledges the role RDA played in her Paralympic success.

“Having had the honour of representing my country at the Paralympics and in numerous other international competitions was a most humbling experience,” she said.

“I was filled with overwhelming pride and was always aware of the encouragement and initial introduction to riding that RDA provided.”

RDA has 39 centres around NSW which provide programs in horse riding, carriage driving and dressage which cater to adults and children with all kinds of disabilities.

Kaye Bracken has been a riding coach at the RDA Ryde centre for over 20 years.

She was initially attracted to RDA for the opportunity to work with horses, but “fell in love” with the program and the difference it made to the lives of the disabled.

According to Ms. Bracken, the social aspect is one of the most significant benefits of classes at RDA.

“Some children may not be in mainstream school and they may not be able to participate in many other group activities, so they come here with other riders and enjoy sticking to a routine,” Ms. Bracken said.

“Their siblings may be able to do other activities whereas riding is their special activity.”

RDA’s programs are based on extensive research of the therapeutic value of horses, a concept known as hippotherapy.

The complex movements involved in horse riding help to improve coordination, balance, muscle development in fitness.

In addition, horse related activities have been proven to have significant psychological benefits, such as the restoration of personal confidence, self-esteem, and communication skills.

For riders with conditions that affect their behaviour such as autism, horse-riding restores a sense of personal control, which in turn improves behaviour towards family, teachers and friends.

Northside has worked consistently with RDA and currently contribute funding to one of the horses based at the Ryde centre, a gelding named River.

“In any sport that people want to take up, it’s important that disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else,” Ms. Berryman said.

“We shouldn’t be putting barriers in their way, or saying they can’t do it or we don’t have the facilities.

“That’s the way we got going with the toilets.”

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