It was in 1959 when I first saw a handicapped child riding a pony. I was impressed at seeing the empty wheelchair left behind in the stable yard as she went off, riding along the hedgerows and bridle paths. Other than that I gave little thought to the matter subsequently, until in 1969 I was asked to undertake a pilot scheme at Queen Mary's Hospital for Children, Carshalton, Surrey. The purpose of this was to explore the benefits that might be derived by patients riding. Six riders were chosen, three mentally handicapped and three physically disabled. The scheme was scrapped within a matter of weeks! The benefits were so obvious that other staff clamoured for their patients to have the opportunity to ride too. For the rest of the summer sixty children from the hospital rode until the chill of the autumn mists brought the sessions to an end. My worst fears were that those who had helped would soon forget during the winter months and they would go on to do other things. The riders did not forget though. As I entered a ward during the bitter weather of the following March, a little, severely mentally handicapped child rushed up and hugged me round the knees and excitedly shouted 'Horsy! Horsy! Horsy!'
There are thirty-two London boroughs. Each has a population of between 200,000 and 300,000 therefore urban areas present a special problem. By the law of averages, there is going to be a higher percentage of handicapped people in large population areas. Two of the boroughs are responsible for 6,000 and 9,000 handicapped and elderly people respectively. Our early success encouraged us to commit ourselves to provide riding for disabled people in South London and the surrounding area. Such a service has to be able to continue regardless of season or weather. Thus the Diamond Centre for Handicapped Riders was built. At the present time the Centre caters for some five hundred riders a week throughout the year. The Diamond Centre was opened by The Princess Royal in 1974. Since then the Centre's sustained success and growing international reputation has been evident to all. If we are not to hold out false hopes to too many others in large urban areas, then more centres that can meet their expectations must be built. The same must apply world wide if riding is as important as some would claim.
Why should handicapped people ride? The first thing you and I notice is their disability. Many people do not get beyond that barrier. Riding a pony makes the rider, their carers and everyone else, aware of their abilities. Besides looking down on you for a change, you are having to look up to them both physically and socially. Riding a pony gives them the opportunity for non-verbal communication and an outlet for emotional expression. The experience of stroking the warm soft coat of a gentle but undeniably powerful animal is unforgettable. The pony accepts them as they are and does not make patronising concessions for their disability.
The freedom of movement that the pony gives brings the freedom of physical expression denied to many of them. The will to achieve more than they thought possible is stimulated in most riders. They, their physiotherapists, instructors and helpers can move mountains together. Imagine the freedom of movement that the pony gives to a blind person. The pony is a bridge whereby those children who have anti-social behaviour problems or who are withdrawn, can be reached. The standards of social behaviour expected by the adult world can be taught through the pony. Socially acceptable behaviour is the easiest path to being accepted as a person.
What is the relevance of riding in a world of such deprivation? Is it obscene to spend money on riding when there are so many people starving in the world? Will any of us, more fortunate, give up our recreation because of all that is wrong. We take for granted that such pursuits will enable us to cope better in our own lives. What is a luxury for most of …