For 30 years, Follifoot Park Disabled Riders Group has been providing disabled and poorly youngsters with the chance to build their confidence, increase their fitness and have fun through riding classes.
Now the charity, which helps children being treated at the Child Development Centre at Harrogate Hospital and others from across the region who come to the group independently, is one of three deserving groups in the running for an accolade at the Yorkshire Children of Courage Awards, which are supported by Yorkshire Post Newspapers.
The group was founded in 1986 by Rosie Towers, who wanted to offer disabled riders the benefits - both physically and holistically - of horse riding, and is based at Follifoot Park Riding Centre, just south of Harrogate.
It has grown in size since, becoming a charity in 1994, and now has more than 150 volunteers who help provide regular rides for groups of disabled children and adults.
Physiotherapist Lucy Longden has been with the group for more than 20 years, since being approached while working at the Child Development Centre in the early days of their link-up.
She said the group offered support for parents during a period of shock when they their child is going through tests and diagnosis.
“It turned out to be one of the most joyous things to do,” she said. “It’s away from the hospital environment, there’s no medical input, and the whole family can come along.”
The group’s physios work individually with each child according to their need, whether it be focused on increasing core strength, head or trunk control.
“The way ponies move transfers the rider’s weight, so it simulates a walking pattern that can help improve balance and strength. If they can’t sit up, they can ride the pony lying down,” Mrs Longden said.
“It’s a new environment for the children to get used to, like the smell of the horses, and the noises of the hens and the dogs in the yard .”
The charity uses ponies provided by the riding centre, but does have two special horses used with its carriage for children who cannot ride the horse. It also has a mechanical horse which is used as an assessment tool before riding, or for those who are not strong enough for a live horse.
The disabilities of the riders are wide-ranging, and include cerebral palsy, learning disabilities, behavioural problems, autism, deafness, visual impairment and many others.
Children start as young as two years old, and one of the group’s members, who has Down’s Syndrome, has just been selected to join the Paralympic training team.
“For these families, their whole lives can be a struggle, so giving the children something they enjoy is so important,” Mrs Longden said. “The difference you see in the children is quite amazing, They absolutely love it and the volunteers find it so rewarding.”
Alison Hoare has been bringing her three-year-old daughter Mia to the group for around six months.
Mia was born at 24 weeks, spent the first six months of her life in hospital, and has a developmental delay.
Ms Hoare, of Harrogate, said: “Being on the horse gives her a lot more confidence while at the same time helping her posture, her core and her muscle development.”
Trustee Sue Oxley, a ride co-ordinator for the group, said it was a real honour to nominated for the award.
“We are such a passionate group and we couldn’t do it without the ride leaders and coordinators who volunteer their time,” she added.”
How to vote
Follifoot Park Disabled Riders Group is nominated for the Yorkshire Children of Courage Awards groups award, alongside The Sick Children’s Trust and Martin House Children’s Hospital.
Awards founder Stephen Mitchell said: “Each year we nominate Charity Groups, working within the Yorkshire Region, who make a positive and enduring difference to the lives of children and young adults, many of whom are very often challenged by ill health and imperfect family situations.
“The Group Award is voted for by the general public and we are always delighted when the nominees – who are all charitable organisations - really get behind their nomination and use it to foster greater awareness, not only of their own work but also, of the truly unique Yorkshire Children of Courage Awards event.”
Make your vote and find out how to nominate a child for an award at www.yorkshirechildren.co.uk