Horses work “magic” for children with disabilities

The South African Riding for the Disabled Association runs free lessons for 50 children a week near Durban

By Nokulunga Majola

1 August 2022

Children with disabilities enjoy free riding lessons at the South African Riding for the Disabled Association in Durban. Photo: Nokulunga Majola

“You make the world of difference one day of the week in the lives of the Browns Pre-Primary children, and for this I thank you,” Browns School teacher Fiona Muhl tells the volunteers at the South African Riding for the Disabled Association (SARDA) in Durban.

Based in Assagay on the outskirts of Durban, SARDA has been offering free therapeutic horse-riding lessons since 2007 for children with disabilities. They see about 50 children a week, aged five to 16.

From the minute the children arrive at the Ridgetop Equestrian Centre to the moment they leave, their day is filled with thrills. Children giggle on their horses in the riding arena as volunteers play with them and teach them riding.

Each child is allocated a suitable pony. Once they are all mounted, the lesson begins. There are obstacle courses and various activities, such as throwing a ball into a hoop, to encourage coordination, flexibility and cognitive development.

A SARDA volunteer said one child is still completely non-verbal at school, but laughed right through a riding session and at the end gave a cowboy style “Yeehaw”. What is happening at the riding school is magic, she said.

Susan Warrington, a volunteer at SARDA, said it is one of the most rewarding things she has ever done. “The joy on their faces, the often first words an autistic child speaks, and knowing that these little souls had a good day is the reason we do this,” said Warrington.

Libby Durk, chairperson of SARDA Durban, said children come from Browns School in Pinetown, Ethembeni School in Inchanga, West Park School in Malvern and the Open Air School in Glenwood.

The riding school depends on donor funding.

“We currently lease six ponies from Ridgetop Equestrian Centre and also pay a lease for the use of the property. Other costs include vet fees, farrier fees, dentist fees, insurance, cost of equipment, training days for volunteers, and training and therapy of our horses,” said Durk.

Three volunteers are also needed per child in addition to the instructor of the day – two side walkers and a leader for the horse.

“Our ponies are an integral part of our programme and require special training to become a therapeutic riding pony. The cost of keeping and caring for the horses is our main expense,” said Durk.