Ruby Cameron never liked sport; she used to cling to her teacher rather than venture out onto the field.
But when her mum Susan Starr signed Ruby up to weekly riding classes at their local Riding for the Disabled facility north-west of Brisbane, the neurodivergent nine-year-old blossomed.
“I have no idea how it works, but for some reason it’s just brought Ruby to life,” Susan said.
“[With] other sports, she was always afraid, didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to go, wouldn’t let go of the teachers’ hands.
Ruby is one of 60 regular riders at the Samford Riding for the Disabled branch, supported by experienced coaches, patient horses, and dozens of volunteers.
Riding for the Disabled was founded in Queensland in 1985, expanding into other states offering riding lessons and therapeutic exposure to horses for children and people with disabilities.
Now, the volunteer organization has 17 centers in Queensland and dozens more nationally.
horse and rider
At Samford, the center has an Olympic-sized arena, nine horses, and up to 80 volunteers putting their time into helping people like Ruby grow through riding lessons each week.
Coach Rhiannon Hutchings has been at the Samford Riding for the Disabled for more than a decade.
“When we sit on a horse, and a horse walks underneath us, it creates in our pelvis and our torso exactly the same movement as when we walk on our own two feet, so for riders who find walking very difficult, impossible or really tiring , we can recreate that walking experience,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane.
“They can also engage in non-verbal communication to ask our horses to do things, which strengthens overall communication.”
While the volunteers put a lot of time and effort into working with people facing their fears and own physical or mental challenges, the horses are also putting in hard work.
“Our horses are incredible; [as is] seeing them react to our riders,” Ms Hutchings said.
“If you watch a rider become slightly unbalanced, you’ll often see a horse correspondingly step over to that side they’re unbalanced, to almost pick them up, or following what you can almost feel is a rider’s intention.”
Sarah Lupton has been an assistant coach at RDA Samford for three years, after starting as a volunteer.
A horse lover from childhood, she realized that her nursing studies corresponded with the work of partnering with people with disabilities, and their families, with horses.
“It’s less about treating the immediate medical issue and more about rehabilitating, building strength, providing opportunities for people to have independence where they wouldn’t normally,” she said.
“Some of the kids especially who [use a wheelchair]you put them up on a horse and their confidence just grows exponentially, because they can see the tops of people’s heads which they’ve never seen before.”
Horses at the center of everything
RDA Samford volunteer secretary Jane Marsh said the horses were at the heart of everything the organization does.
“We treat them like gods, basically; they get everything they need. We do a lot of fundraising to make sure we can do that for them,” she said.
Large or small, the selected horses must be extremely calm, tolerant, and willing to be handled by dozens of different people.
It’s a tall ask for a horse and means that the RDA is on the lookout for new horses to add to their herd — the same kind of horses or ponies in high demand for children and pony clubs.
“It’s an ongoing hunt for horses because we do remove them when they show signs of not enjoying it anymore, we don’t force them to stay here,” Ms Marsh said.
Achievements and growth
All of the volunteers have watched young children or people with disabilities, often deeply scared or challenged, respond to the calm quietness of their horses — learning how to communicate with a large animal, figuring out what to do when things don’t go right, and learning more about themselves.
“[That] feeling of achievement when a half-tonne animal takes your suggestion and goes, ‘Yeah sure, I can do that’. That’s huge. That’s a massive feeling of control,” Ms Hutchings said.
For Susan and Ruby, it means that every Friday is a day of excitement as well as growth — it’s time for Ruby to visit her favorite pony, Cherry, and go for a ride.
“it’s just amazing, they understand the horses, what the horses can do; they don’t push them,” Susan said.
To celebrate 90 years of the ABC connecting communities, we’ve partnered with Volunteering Australia to encourage Australians to come together and make a pledge: 90 minutes of kindness in your community. Make the pledge and share your #ABC90for90 with your friends, family and colleagues.