the Board Sheri Johnson reflects on the transformative power of horse riding for children with disabilities.
“I remember one little girl from right back when I started volunteering. She was about six years old and rode with me for four years. She was a teeny, tiny little thing. Her thighs were as thin as my wrists. She always rode Jim Bob the pony when she came.
When she first came to us, she could barely walk. She hobbled around the yard on two sticks and at school, she used a chair. She never spoke. And she couldn’t make it up the steps to get on the horse – we had to help her up the steps and lift her onto the horse.
Because of her Cerebral Palsy she didn’t have any core strength at the start. She couldn’t hold herself up on the pony and every few strides we’d have to s
top because she’d hunch forward and we had to lift her up so she could breathe.
You couldn’t recognise her after four years with us. She went from not speaking to constantly chatting. And she could run. Not perfectly but she could run and you couldn’t slow her down. She really was unbelievable.
Kids have all sorts of issues when they come to us. Maybe they’re angry or can’t communicate or act out and pick fights After all, who knows what they’re going through at school? Maybe they’re being picked on. But when they start riding, that stops. They completely transform.
It’s because they have the opportunity to be successful here – maybe for the first time in their lives. We never push them further than they can go. They’re in charge of the horse and that gives them a sense of accomplishment they don’t normally get. They’re all A+ students with us and they’re all successful.
Horses are very loyal and calm animals. The kids pick up on that. You can’t worry about anything but the horse when you’re riding. They’re wonderful animals and they’re a total partner with you. The kinds bond with them and spend all day hugging and grooming them.
I’ve seen parents literally burst into tears because their child has started talking after being selectively mute. There’s not a child with us who doesn’t know their pony’s name or doesn’t speak. Teachers tell us that the kids are totally different emotionally and behaviourally. Riding is transformative.
There’s a powerful communication link between the horse and the little child. I don’t know how that works. I guess it’s because the horse just stands there and doesn’t ask for anything – it just listens to the child.
When I started as volunteer in 2009, I didn’t know anything about RDA or working with children. I just loved horses and was about to retire so said ‘sure, I’ll do it.’ I fell madly in love with it. It is unbelievably rewarding to see the benefit it brings to all the kids.”