LOOKING back over 30 years, pupils from Tor Bank School, Dundonald, attended the Ballystockart Riding for the Disabled (RDA) Group at Millbridge Riding Centre, Comber. RDA volunteer, Joyce Dunlop writes: “The riders came from Tor Bank School, 22 in all. The school and ponies were given free of charge by Lewis Lowry, for which the RDA will be eternally grateful.
“Nine riders in each group took part in an hour’s ride each and four children with more complex needs who used wheelchairs, were able to interact with the ponies, petting them and occasionally being able to sit on them. The group also introduced vaulting for some of the more able bodied.
“All in all, the group had very busy mornings, but thankfully we were fortunate enough to have many helpers.”
Ballystockart Group closed in 2003, but three dedicated volunteers, (Joyce, Gillian Thompson and Elizabeth Duff) transferred to Craigantlet Group where, at that time, the riders came from Oakwood School in Belfast. In 2016, the group’s riders changed from Oakwood to Tor Bank.
Tor Bank pupils now attend RDA sessions at Birr House Equestrian Centre three days a week, where they are lucky to have a great selection of fantastic horses and ponies and the use of excellent facilities – a huge thank you must go to Caroline McVeigh for all her co-operation and generosity over the past 30-plus years.
On Mondays, the Whinney Hill Group have a class of eight riders, aged between 10 and 12 years of age.
Coach Betsy Trevor says: “Every Monday morning, the volunteers at Whinney Hill RDA are greeted with the smiling faces of the pupils from Tor Bank School, eager to mount their ponies. Each week, we watch our riders grow in confidence as their riding skills improve. Through a series of exercises, such as bending in and out of cones, walking over poles and dropping toys into a basket, the riders improve their balance and core strength, attention span and ability to follow instructions. When the riders dismount, pat and thank the ponies, the bond between rider and pony, and the pleasure the children gain from their ride is very obvious to see.
“Each week, the volunteers are humbled by the impact and pleasure that riding brings to these very special children.”
On Tuesdays, the Newtownards Group offer a session for four teenage riders, along with eight other individual adult riders from different local areas.
These older Tor Bank pupils have the opportunity to progress to ride independently and enter competitions. They also enjoy socialising with the other group riders and volunteers over a coffee and juice break.
On Fridays, the Craigantlet Group meets.
Their coach, Barbara Hanna says: “Our group meets on Fridays throughout term time and offers opportunities for young children with additional needs, who are pupils at Tor Bank School, Dundonald. During the last academic year, up until we were interrupted by the onset of Covid 19, we provided riding opportunities for seven and eight-year-old children. This year’s group was a class of nine children with a range of additional needs, including Down’s syndrome, autism and global developmental delay. Several of the children were also non-verbal.
“Riding has been shown to benefit health and well-being. Our children learn new skills and gain in self-confidence and a sense of achievement. Riding is great for muscle strength, balance and fitness. It helps with co-ordination and communication, social skills and relating to other people. Our top priorities are safety and fun!
“These benefits are all thanks to one of the few outdoor activities available to the disabled community.”
Karen Curren, Secondary Department Co-ordinator at Tor Bank School, Dundonald stated: “Tor Bank School is a school for pupils with severe learning difficulties. The RDA has been providing invaluable opportunities for the students at Tor Bank for over 30 years. They generally run three groups for Tor Bank students. Two groups for Primary aged pupils and also a senior group for Secondary or Sixth Form pupils. This takes a lot of volunteers, usually three per student, as well as additional volunteers for ringside assistance and coaching. The volunteers’ commitment and enthusiasm is amazing.
“We are so grateful to the RDA for providing this otherwise unattainable experience for our pupils and to Birr House for providing the beautiful horses and setting.
“Pupils’ difficulties range from physical issues, including Cerebral Palsy and sensory issues, such as sight loss, to Autism or Specific Learning Difficulties. Our students can often be isolated. They do not have the same physical, social and leisure opportunities available to them as mainstream young people. The opportunity to ride a horse or even to experience a countryside and a stable environment is amazing,” Karen continued.
“As well as the physical benefits, the emotional benefits are immense. It is just wonderful to watch pupils’ joy and their self-confidence grow. Someone who’s life is so controlled, experience controlling a beautiful animal.
“The RDA also provides an opportunity for pupils to gain accreditation relating to Horse riding skills and stable management. Some pupils go on to participate in competitions. In the past, we have also had students travel to England to participate in National competitions.
“The RDA is a truly fantastic organisation, doing an invaluable service – they have made a huge difference in the lives of so many of the young people from Tor Bank over the last 30 years,” she concluded.