Danielle Wright connects with a group of special children getting active on horseback.

On a Saturday morning in Greenhithe sports field, you'll find preschoolers hopping over water spouts at the playground, while their brothers or sisters score soccer goals nearby. Down a long driveway beside the field, disabled children are donning riding hats and hopping on large horses for their own fix of weekend sport.

The classes held at the Riding for the Disabled (RDA) Greenhithe branch are not just about getting active, though. These children also experience the therapeutic benefits. Even on my short visit, I observe them being much calmer on the horses than they were when they arrived at the centre. One child is lying down on a horse's back, giving it a big hug and smiling widely.

The therapeutic benefits of horse riding are well-documented -- horses were used for therapy and rehabilitation in Britain in the early 1900s through to World War I as a way to help convalescing soldiers, especially amputees. By the 1950s and 60s, polio sufferers were also being helped. One disabled rider, Liz Martel, swapped her wheelchair for a horse and won a silver medal in dressage at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

The RDA horses I watch are always led, with two people walking on either side of the horse, as well as a teacher calling out instructions. It's not so much about teaching children to be horse-riders, but more about using the horses as a way to improve concentration, work certain muscles and so receive therapy.


The beautiful natural environment, birdsong and pine forest smells must also go a long way towards providing a moment's peace to start each weekend. It certainly seems a lot less testosterone-driven than the raucous sideline shouts of the soccer field nearby.

I watch 6-year old Calvin Ranwell, who has Down's syndrome, being led on horseback around the paddock on a kind of treasure hunt, trying to find teddy bears under orange cones or high up on the tree branches. He sits on a sheepskin on top of the horse (rather than a saddle) and has no stirrups for his feet, which I'm told helps to work on improving balance. He holds the reins for stability. His mother Samantha tells me he has been coming to lessons for the past two years and only good things have come from it. She's now part of the club as a committee member.

"His older brother does cricket, but this is Calvin's thing," says Sam. "He's a real outdoor boy."

The next activity is set to music and I watch the children play a kind of musical chairs game on horseback as Pharrell Williams' Happy is heard across the field. The teacher says, "Feel free to dance."

A young girl -- who is missing a hand -- claps and dances in her saddle as her horse is led around the field. It's a heartwarming sight. Seeing the children sitting on the horses, it's easy to forget they have any disabilities, as they are able to participate fully in the classes.

Kim Fischer, Greenhithe RDA president, tells me the hardest thing about the classes is finding horses with the right personalities. Volunteers are plentiful and either sign up because they love working with horses, or they have experience working with children.

"Once they come, they usually end up staying for a long time," says Kim about her volunteers, some as young as 15. One, an occupational therapist, drives over from Manukau.

"They get a lot out of it and it's rewarding for them to see the children's development."

Volunteer Christine Broad has been willingly sacrificing her Saturday mornings for 17 years. She says: "A person doing this needs to have patience and be able to look outside the square."

Christine remembers one child who used to scream when put on the horse. She says he's now their "photographic child" and his face lights up when he arrives. Other children they work with are usually aged between 6 and 16, with varied disabilities including spina bifida, Down's syndrome and autism.

The parents on the sidelines of the RDA class are proud as punch of their children and full of praise for the volunteers. Walking past the soccer field on the way home, all I hear are complaints from the able-children's parents about their child's performance, the coach or referee decisions, or who didn't deserve "player of the day".

It couldn't be a more different Saturday morning kids' sport experience.

Giddy up

New Zealand Riding for the Disabled in Greenhithe operates three out of four terms (closing during the winter term three). Cost: $75 a term; Saturdays 9am-noon. There are 55 other RDA Groups around the country, including another six in Auckland. rda.org.nz

Greenhithe RDA's hay shed was burned down for the second time just before Christmas. The local community donated its Santa Parade takings to build a new one, as well as private donations of hay and money.

Gingerbread Horses

Help raise funds during RDA Awareness Week, July 28, by baking and selling gingerbread horses. Register your workplace, school or community group bakers. You'll get a registration pack with recipes and instructions on baking and decorating biscuits to sell. Prizes for the best decorated biscuit, most money raised and a special prize draw for all registered bakers. Registrations are open this weekend at at gingerbreadhorse.co.nz