Riding for the Disabled

Riding for the Disabled

calendarJune 25 2020

Deborah Hall MBE is manager of Chigwell Riding Trust for Special Needs. In this post she talks about the amazing work they do and the difference it can make in people’s lives. We also hear from parents of the riders who explain why riding is so important to them.

Ability Not Disability

Our motto at Chigwell Riding Trust is “It’s ability not disability that counts” and I think that speaks volumes. I have seen so many fantastic achievements here.

I came to Chigwell Riding Trust (formerly called Pony Riding for Disabled Trust) on 4th January 1982. 38 years ago!

A black and white image shows 6 people and a pony standing in line. They are 4 riders and 2 members of staff.  One person is on horse back, two people are in wheelchairs, one person is using crutches. One member of staff is holding the pony's head.
Deborah (second from the right) arrived at Chigwell Riding Trust in 1982

Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA)

The Riding for the Disabled Association, known as RDA, is a worldwide organisation. It offers riding therapy for people with physical disabilities, sensory impairment or those with learning disabilities. Last year 26,000 riders benefitted from therapeutic riding across the UK. There are over 500 groups and approximately 25 centres. RDA operates worldwide, in over 45 countries including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and USA to name but a few.

Chigwell was the first!

An image of Princess Anne shaking the hand of Liz Stone, equestrian paralympic medallist. Liz is sitting on the back of the pony, the Princess Royal is standing on the ground next to them.
Princess Anne is the RDA’s president . Here she is at Chigwell meeting Liz Stone. Liz represented the UK, winning silver, at the first equestrian event at the Atlanta paralympics in 1996.

Chigwell Riding Trust for Special Needs was actually the very first RDA centre in the world, starting in 1964!  For our 50th birthday we made a video which shows our history, including some footage from the 1960s. Click here to watch.

Prior to Covid-19 we had 160 people riding every week. Covid-19 has forced us to close for the foreseeable future, as many of our riders, staff and volunteers are particularly vulnerable. However, we are grateful that our riders have been working hard to raise money. This allows us to look after the horses and make sure we are here when lockdown is over.

How does riding help?

What are the benefits of riding one might ask? They are numerous, but here are a few facts:

In walk a pony/horse is three dimensional. The movement goes backwards and forwards, up and down, and side to side. When the rider is sitting on the pony their pelvis, will be tilted in the exact same fashion as you or I walking down the High Street.  Messages are sent to the brain leaving the walking pattern. We have seen riders who prior to riding were not able to walk.  After a period of time some of these riders become ambulant. 

Riding stimulates the brain! Some children, particularly those with autism, may be non-verbal and parts of their brain lie dormant as a result. While sitting on the pony they must maintain their balance.  Again, the movement of the pony stimulates those parts of the brain not working.

Image shows a boy on a mounting platform about to get on his pony. He is holding on to the saddle and a member of staff is supporting him before his swings his leg over the pony's back. Another member of staff stands on the other side of the platform waiting to support the child.

Information can take a while to process.  Reaction may not happen in my lesson; it could happen going back to school on the bus or even the next day at home. But suddenly, children may say their pony’s name, or a command to ‘walk on’!  Whether these children are learning to walk or talk for the first time they really are life changing skills.

A new perspective

Just imagine sitting in a wheelchair every day, all day. When having a conversation you will always be looking up at people. But when a person is sitting on a horse they will see things from a totally different perspective. You are looking across and down at people.  Just imagine what it must do for their confidence and self-esteem. Very often autistic people do not give you eye contact but once on a horse they sit up proudly, possibly giving eye contact but certainly looking around confidently.

Not only that but imagine being in charge of something for the first time ever! Children are rarely in charge, especially those with special needs. Adults make all the decisions, often doing everything for the child! One of the reasons that children relate so well to animals is it puts them in a different role. It must be wonderful to grow in confidence and be in charge of the pony. This is likely to be the first time in a child’s life that they find themselves empowered in this way.

We couldn’t do it without our volunteers.

Image of a young girl moving in to kiss the forehead of a white pony. The pony is held by a volunteer.

We have a huge mix of riders. Some with profound problems up to those who compete in the Paralympics, so we need a lot of help. As an organisation we are totally dependent on volunteers, with around 18,000 people volunteering across the UK! Without them, the RDA could not operate. 

One rider may need three people to assist them; a leader to be in charge of the pony, and two side helpers, one on either side. These people offer the rider security and moral support, as well as reinforcing instructions and learning points from the coach.  Volunteers, staff, horses and riders form strong friendships and we have built a strong and proud community around the Trust.

Special Friendships are made at Chigwell Stables. Poppy and Adi hit it off as soon as they met and have been friends ever since!

Two very little girls (2 & 3) with their arms round each other.
Poppy and Adi first met in 2013.
Two girls, 6 & 7, with arms round each other. Each showing off a rosette and big smiles.
Celebrating in 2017
Two girls, aged 8 & 9 are posing with arms round eachother. They are both smiling and wearing riding helmets. Both are wrapped up in warm coats and scarves.
Wrapped up warm in 2019

Below, parents of riders describe what the stables has meant to them:


Ava joined the RDA stables at Chigwell for sessions aged just 3 after someone recommended ‘Hippotherapy’ to us. She had no fear of the horses who towered over her. She was totally smitten with these gentle giants from the start. Ava is profoundly deaf with hypermobility, low tone and vestibular hypo function, meaning she really struggles with balance and co-ordination.

Ava, aged about 5 stands proudly in front of pony tansy's stall. Tansy is a white pony, looking straight at the camera. Ava has two, huge rosettes on her smart riding jacket.
A proud Ava with Tansy the pony

When she started riding, she was falling and tripping often. She had to wear a helmet at nursery to play outside safely. In her first few sessions, whenever the horse gathered pace, she flopped around on top like a rag doll. Within a few short weeks however she was sitting upright, and within a few months her core strength had improved considerably. She was able to make gains in other life skills, like walking upstairs independently.

Both Ava’s school and Occupational Therapist were fully supportive of her riding. They signed her off to attend weekly sessions during school hours. Ava was put into a lovely group of fellow riders, all with different challenges and goals. We were always made to feel so welcome and supported by the fabulous volunteer staff. For me as a parent it was a welcome respite during my hectic week. It was a real treat to be able to watch her doing something she loved, whilst enjoying the company of some wonderful fellow parents. We both looked forward to the sessions, despite the fact they exhausted Ava. She continued riding at Chigwell for the next 3 years until we moved out of the area. I’m pleased to say Ava’s love of horses has continued and we have managed to find another RDA stable close to our new home.


Poppy started riding nearly 6 years ago and it has been a major part in her life. It has helped her both physically, mentally and emotionally. Before she started riding she didn’t have any focus at all. She didn’t show any interest in anything. Now almost everything is horses!

Poppy has low muscle tone and a weak core. Her mum feels that the 3D movement of the horse has definitely helped to improve the strength in these. When she first started she was extremely floppy, finding it hard to stay upright when the horse moved. However, now she can hold herself even when trotting, making her stronger.

Image shows Poppy, aged about 8, sitting on a large, brown horse. She has someone leading her and a helper on each side holding her ankles.
Poppy on Bobby

It has been a great opportunity for her where she has met many wonderful people; co-riders and the amazing volunteers. Poppy has made some great friends and shared some lovely moments together. She loves learning about the horses, including how to care for them. When she rides, she just seems ‘at home’. She loves every second of it, which shows in the big smile she continually has throughout. It maybe slow, but she has continually progressed and could not be without it.


Adi, aged 9, is riding a brown pony by herself. She is walking the pony over a pole on the ground.
Adi riding Buster

Adi had a malignant brain tumour removed when she was 2. She had just finished intensive chemo and radiotherapy when she started riding at 3½ years old. She had been left with a range of disabilities and was very shy, clingy and hunched over like a little old woman. Now, aged 10, she is stronger, sitting straight on the horse, and she is happy and confident at the stables.

Chigwell Trust is a place where Adi truly belongs and where she has learned a lot about herself. She has discovered a talent for making other children feel welcome. Most recently she has drawn a huge amount of confidence and inspiration from one of her helpers, a young woman who is deaf like her. During Covid-19 we are missing the stables desperately!


My son, Swaran, who has autism, has been fortunate to be riding at CRT over the last few years. When he first started riding, he was non-verbal and had poor posture. He was very much a child “locked in his own world.” 

Over time, he started to say a few words. It was such a thrill when he could start to name the pony that he was riding every week! Soon he got to know the regular volunteers who would be at his side in lessons. Now he chats away. His cheeky personality has certainly emerged!

Last year he participated in his first gymkhana competition. This was an amazing achievement to be able to be included in this and come away with a rosette!

Swaran (about 8) is sitting tall on a brown pony. He has a leader holding the pony's head and his feet are being checked in the stirrups by one of the staff.

CRT has given us a sense of belonging to a community, to be included and accepted. In this environment, he has thrived with his speech, his interaction with staff, volunteers, other riders and of course the ponies. His posture, his confidence and his interest in others have all developed as a result of CRT. Deborah and her team are amazing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit CRT hard. With no riders, their income has drastically dropped. So, when we had the opportunity to fundraise, we were happy to do so. We could give back to a place which has given us and so many others so much. 

About Deborah Hall MBE

Deborah has been at Chigwell Riding Trust since 1982. She and her husband, Ken, have made the Trust what it is today. Even, quite literally, rebuilding it following a major fire that burned down the school in 1992!

Deborah, Ken and the team of staff, volunteers, ponies, cats and dogs make Chigwell a very special place to be.

A shot of Deborah Hall standing with her hands behind her back, smiling at something off camera.
Deborah Hall MBE

If you would like to donate or find out more about Chigwell Riding Trust,visit the website: 

To find out more about Riding for the Disabled Association click here RDA

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