Horse play transforms lives in West Norfolk
Their smiles say it all. For Daisy, Sophie and Lewis this is the highlight of their week – and how it shows.
You only have to look at their beaming faces to see how much they enjoy their sessions with their four-legged equine friends Sully, Pebbles and Rye.
For these three children – and the dozens of other youngsters and adults with disabilities and special needs who have lessons with the West Norfolk Riding for the Disabled group - the whole experience is life-enhancing and it is fair to say it is even life-changing for some.
We went to one of their Monday afternoon lessons at the Magpie Centre, at Wallington Hall, to talk to the children and their mums, and to meet the team of staff and volunteer helpers who make it happen.
The group is always trying to attract more of these valuable helpers and has just launched another appeal for new recruits to join them.
All three children have cerebral palsy and have made massive progress in many ways since they started riding as a therapy.
Sophie and Lewis Clarke are 10-year-old twins from Walsoken, who have been riding for several years and who go along with mum and their school teaching assistant Adele Pool.
Lewis manages to walk unaided but his sister needs a wheelchair and they both struggle with co-ordination. But in the saddle all that changes and they are bursting with confidence.
It wasn’t always like that, as their mum, Mandy Seaton, explained. “Their physiotherapist recommended Riding for the Disabled and Lewis loved it from day one. Sophie, on the other hand, was very reluctant and scared at first but we stuck with it and after two weeks she was loving it, too.
“They have both come a really long way. We have seen amazing physical improvements, especially in their core muscles and their balance, and Sophie’s co-ordination has improved so now she can hold the reins and knows her left from her right which always was a problem for her in the past.
“But more than that, they have gained in self-confidence and it has helped them to communicate with the other children and adults so it is quite a social occasion, too.”
Six-year-old Daisy Mason, from East Winch, was there with mum Lucy and was bursting with excitement about her lesson.
Daisy suffers from quadriplegic cerebral palsy and there was a time when her parents were warned she would never walk, talk or lead any sort of normal life – hard to believe now as she chats about Pebbles the pony and sits proudly in the saddle beaming at everyone round her.
This amazing little girl has also completed a triathlon and appeared on TV’s Secret Life of Five-Year-Olds.
Mum and Dad’s determination and optimism with help from physios and therapists has worked wonders and her riding lessons play a key role.
“We were lucky to be able to come here because this is one form of physiotherapy that is also fun,” said Lucy.
They have been going to the Magpie Centre for two years and barely missed a session.
“She loved it straight away,” said Lucy. “She always struggled with core strength and balance and to begin with she couldn’t sit up at all and had to have two people walking each side to hold her in the saddle. But over the weeks she became more supple and now she can sit up and only needs a guiding hand.”
The horses are also helping Lucy to overcome her own fear of animals. “I didn’t want Daisy to have the same fears but there has never been any danger of that,” she said.
These stories are echoed by the other children and adults who go to Magpie Centre to ride or, for the most seriously disabled, to enjoy carriage driving.
And none of it would happen without the dedication and generosity of the yard manager, Natalie Dade, the rest of the staff and small army of volunteers who give up their time to help with the lessons, the horses and ponies and maintaining the centre.
They see at first hand how the pupils improve and how horses can create unique bonds with the riders.
Natalie said: “I have watched Daisy, Sophie and Lewis make incredible progress. It is not just when they are on the horses. There is a social side to this. They have become more confident and outgoing and they interact with other people. And it is great for the parents, too. I find it incredibly rewarding and I am sure our volunteers feel the same.”
A summer recruitment appeal boosted numbers but more would still be very welcome. Just a few hours a week would make all the difference.
Sheila Atthow and Kate Miles chose to become volunteers when they retired.
Sheila, from Lynn, and her husband, found out about the centre at Holkham Country Fair and now go along twice a week, or more if needed. “I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for something worthwhile to do in their spare time,” she said.
Kate Miles, from Methwold, not only helps at the centre but also provides holiday and recuperation accommodation at her home for some of the horses from time to time.
“It is incredibly rewarding and I think of it as payback time,” she said.
The contact number for anyone wanting to find out more about volunteering is 01553 810202.