When my daughter Nancy was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months old, I was frequently made aware of the things she wouldn't be able to do. A kind of bucket list in reverse, I suppose.
I remember a stream of sympathetic health officials who would sit me down and gently warn me that she might not walk, or swim, or ride a bike. The more hardy ones would brusquely announce that she probably won't play the piano and of course, she'll never climb Everest.But not once, in all those early, formative years was I made aware of the opportunities that would be open to her, of the things that she could potentially achieve in her life.
Thankfully, I had the unending support of our fantastic physiotherapist who, amongst many other things, suggested that I contact the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), a charity which gives children and adults with disabilities the opportunity to learn to ride horses. Their mantra is 'it's what you can do that counts'.
Despite not being able to walk until she was nearly four, Nancy took to riding like a pony to Polos.
At the age of five and decked out in jodhpurs and a riding hat she was happily led around the yard on a whiskery piebald called Murphy. Whether it was the outfit or the squash and biscuits after the lesson, she fell in love with riding immediately.
The RDA has been around for over 40 years. It currently has 500 groups around the country and an incredible 18,000 dedicated volunteers who give up their time and very often their ponies to help children and adults with physical and learning disabilities learn to ride. As a registered charity, the lessons and equipment are almost fully funded so cost need not be a barrier to learning.
While riding is renowned for its physical benefits for children with cerebral palsy, such as improving core strength, straightening posture and reducing muscle stiffness, there are many emotional benefits too. Being able to ride a pony creates a real sense of achievement. For children who are confined to a wheelchair or who solely rely on carer, it gives them a real sense of independence. Not to mention the enormous boost to their self-confidence.
Nancy takes her riding lessons very seriously. Along with riding, each session includes horse management where she learns how to look after and keep a horse (cue a never-ending request for one of her own). An added benefit to her weekly lessons is that Nancy now has a firm group of friends who have a similar disability.
But it doesn't only benefit children with physical and learning disabilities. Horse-riding has been shown to be an effective therapy for children with autism. The Horse Boy UK Foundation aims to bring the healing effects of horses and nature to children and adults on the autistic spectrum. The Horse Boy programme was developed in the States by Rupert Isaacson who saw his autistic son benefit from spending time with horses.
There are a number of dedicated Horse Boy camps in the UK, where children and their families can immerse themselves in a natural environment and spend time with horses away from the pressures of day-to-day life.
Our local RDA group is called Hope in the Valley and is held at Plumpton agricultural college in the heart of the glorious Sussex South Downs. It's run by a fantastic group of volunteers who each week give up their time and bring their precious, well-behaved ponies for the children to ride. In turn they receive the adulation of every child (and parent) who attends the group. It was one of these instructors who gave Nancy the opportunity to train for her first dressage competition at the tender age of seven.
It's organised by the South-East region of RDA, and while it's a great day out for riders and families, it's certainly no amateur gymkhana. The majority of our national champions started out at an RDA group and the South East Region Dressage competition is a qualifying round for the RDA National Championships at Hartpury in Gloucestershire, where it's not unknown for Paralympic scouts to roam.
As I watched my daughter, sat poised on Rose the pony in her tweed hacking jacket and white gloves looking every bit the professional rider, I suddenly realised that what was just good physiotherapy and a fun hobby for Nancy, could actually be the very first stepping stone to Paralympic glory.
More on Parentdish: A Paralympic legacy: my child is proud of her disability
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