Buxton's Helen Atkin Group Riding for the Disabled Association celebrates 30 years
PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:18 28 September 2017
Janette Sykes discovers 'it's what you can do that counts' as Buxton's foremost equine charity celebrates 30 successful years
When eminent American psychologist Helen Thompson Woolley wrote ‘In riding a horse, we borrow freedom’, she struck a chord with equine enthusiasts everywhere.
Riders of all ages and abilities can identify with her wise words – perhaps none more so than the thousands of children and adults whose lives are enhanced and enriched by the work of the national charity the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).
Founded more than 40 years ago, the RDA’s upbeat message to people with disabilities, volunteers, instructors and supporters alike is ‘It’s what you can do that counts’.
Buxton-based Helen Atkin Group, RDA – which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year – is living proof that a positive attitude and optimistic outlook can work wonders, offering hours of enjoyment and exercise for everyone involved.
The group was launched in 1987 by Pat Atkin and her late husband John after their daughter Helen’s untimely death at the age of 19.
‘We were trying to decide what to do with all the donations we received at her funeral,’ said Pat, who has been involved ever since as group treasurer. ‘Helen had always had an interest in horses, and though she hadn’t ridden, she had always wanted to.
‘One of the social workers at the Devonshire Dome, which was then a hospital, suggested that it would be great to have a Riding for the Disabled group in Buxton, as the nearest one was at Tansley, near Matlock.
‘John and I got a group of people together, including Caroline Andrew, who had just started Buxton Riding School, and Keith Martin, who became our first chairman, and that was the start of Helen Atkin RDA.’
Caroline’s sister, Louise Thompson, née Andrew, who took over the reins at Buxton Riding School in 1990, has been involved with the group since the age of 14, and recalled: ‘At that time we only had two horses – a big one and a little one! – and a handful of riders referred by the hospital and other local organisations.
‘Over the years the number of riders and volunteers has grown, and we now run regular sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for everyone from primary school children to adults. One of our riders, Neil Wain, started riding with us right at the start. He’s now 58, and still enjoys his hour riding every Thursday morning.’
Current chairman Wendy Howe, who has been a volunteer since 1988, is in no doubt of the life-changing benefits that being with horses and riding can bring. ‘Riding for the Disabled works on so many levels, for everyone from the riders and their families to our dedicated band of volunteers, who generously give up their time each week to help,’ she said. ‘For the riders, it improves their quality of life and physical and mental well-being. It improves their balance, strength and core stability and many become more active and independent in other aspects of their lives. For the volunteers, it’s very satisfying to work with the riders and horses and to share the pleasure and sense of achievement that both children and adults experience. We’ve also struck up firm friendships over the years – we socialise regularly at fund-raising events and at Christmas – and are a great support to each other through the problems and challenges that life inevitably brings.’
That sense of satisfaction also extends to the riding instructors, both old and new. Retired teacher Mary Combe has volunteered with RDA for more than 40 years, and has taught Tuesday riders at Helen Atkin RDA since the late 1990s.
‘I love everything about it,’ she said. ‘The riders really enjoy it and learn through that enjoyment, because they listen to instructions and want to follow them. It also does me good to keep in touch with young people – I learn so much from them – and I like the company of my fellow volunteers and being with the animals.’
Recent recruit Bethan Garlick, who has worked freelance as a groom and instructor for the past 15 years, added: ‘I really like being involved, helping the riders to learn, yet enjoy themselves at the same time. The volunteers are amazing – being with them is like having your own little community, and we couldn’t do it without them.’
One thing chairman Wendy Howe is particularly proud of is that riders are now reaching a standard where they are able to compete in RDA competitions, such as nine-year-old Hamish Dicken, of Chesterfield, who was the Helen Atkin group’s first-ever competitor in a regional RDA contest in May.
Hamish, who has Asperger’s Syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been riding for just two-and-a-half years, and took part in the North Midlands Countryside Challenge Regional Qualifier at Scropton Riding and Driving Centre in South Derbyshire.
Not only did Hamish complete the challenge on ‘Zeus’, a Fell pony he had never ridden before, he achieved 75.75 marks out of a possible 100, which has spurred him on to improve his score in next year’s competition.
Glynis Dalley, manager at Scropton Riding and Driving Centre, was particularly impressed: ‘We were delighted that Hamish was able to take part in the Countryside Challenge. He did really well, and we hope to welcome more riders from the Helen Atkin group in future. The Buxton volunteers do a fantastic job in providing RDA opportunities for riders of all ages in the north of the county.’
‘I really enjoyed it,’ said Hamish, whose usual steed at Buxton Riding School is a small chestnut gelding called ‘Buster’. ‘I like riding and being with horses, and look forward to it every week. My favourite pony is “Buster”, because he is nice and full of character.’
Hamish’s mum, Christine, explained: ‘Hamish first came to Buxton Riding School on a day out with a Chesterfield charity called Fairplay, and he really loved it. I made enquiries about Helen Atkin RDA, and fortunately there was a free space for him to learn to ride.
‘Being involved is a lifeline for both of us. Riding has improved Hamish’s core strength, confidence and focus, and he loves being part of the group. From my point of view, when he is riding I know he is safe and being looked after, so it gives me some breathing space.’
Another rider who has aspirations to represent the group at competition level is Josh Downing (23) of Hayfield, who is partially sighted and has been involved for the past three years as both a volunteer and a rider.
‘I was petrified of horses when I was growing up, even though my mum and grandmother kept them,’ he admitted. Things changed when he studied countryside management at Reaseheath College in Nantwich, Cheshire and he helped a friend care for his horses at Winsford.
‘I really enjoyed myself and wanted to start riding. Buxton Volunteer Centre suggested I get involved with Helen Atkin RDA, and things went from there. It’s really therapeutic just being around horses, and very rewarding to help other people with disabilities too.’
Now Josh is studying a degree in equine management at Kirklees College, West Yorkshire, has acquired his own horse, ‘Archie’, and said: ‘I’d love to get to the stage where I can compete in RDA competitions and, if I reach a high enough standard, I’d love to take part in the Paralympics.’
The Helen Atkin Group, RDA (charity number 1074129) will be celebrating its 30th anniversary with a fund-raising Barn Dance at the Devonshire Dome, University of Derby Buxton, on Friday 3rd November. Tickets, price £18 each, will include hot food, and there will also be a cash bar and raffle. They are available from Bells Shoes, 43 Spring Gardens, Buxton, 0330 111 1213, firstname.lastname@example.org, and online from www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/helen-atkin-riding-for-the-disabled-group-buxton-8113323475. To find out more about volunteering opportunities with the group, email email@example.com, or call the secretary, Janine Frost, on 01629 640557.