Seventh Heaven

Tucked beside the Cardinal Wolsey pub, on a busy main road in West London, you can find Horse Rangers RDA. Earlier this year, with a grant from RDA National Office, made possible by The Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal, the group launched a brand new session specifically for 7 to 12 year olds. But this is no ordinary session. We took a visit to Horse Rangers to find out more.

The Horse Rangers Association at Hampton Court has been operational for almost 60 years, and has delivered riding lessons for children and adults with special needs for over 40 years.

In addition to its able-bodied riding and horse care activities, Horse Rangers provides eight hour or half-hour sessions every week during term time for about 48 riders with special needs. While this model has helped boost the use of the stables during the week, like many RDA groups, Horse Rangers has increasingly struggled to meet the demand from children desperate to join in, but who can’t get time out of school.

“The other issue is finding enough volunteer support during the day,” explains Horse Rangers Development Director, Anna McCrum. “We tried running after school sessions on a Monday, but still had the problem of everyone having to rush back from work or school, flustered children and parents and struggling to find volunteers who could make it in time.”

So, it was time for a different approach. And Squadron 7 – as the newly launched Wednesday evening group is named – is certainly different.

Team spirit

Horse Rangers Association is a bit like the Girl Guide or Scouting movements, but with horses. Just as Guides and Scouts are grouped into ‘Sixes’, so Horse Rangers are grouped into Squadrons. Membership starts from just 8 years old and although the upper age limit is technically 18, many Rangers stay with the group and become leaders, sharing what they have learned with the next generation. Indeed, it certainly seems that ‘Once a Horse Ranger – always a Horse Ranger’.

Members progress up the ranks as their skills and experience improve. These promotions bring greater responsibility, including helping out younger members. Crucially, it’s not just about riding. Horse Rangers are expected to learn as much as possible about horse care and stable management, to the extent that every other session they don’t actually ride at all.

“Riding in itself isn’t the motivating factor,” explains Marcia, one of Horse Rangers’ eight RDA Instructors. “Being part of a team is the reward.”

Detailed planning

With the plan in place to create the new session, the group applied to RDA National for a grant, made possible by the Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. Having already secured some funding from other sources, and taking into account the income that would be generated from participants’ monthly subscriptions, the Group applied for £6,500 to meet their projected shortfall for the first year of running the session.

“We submitted a project plan, detailing the purpose of the sessions, our goals and expected outcomes, our criteria for measuring success and of course our financial plan,” explains Anna. “We knew our project would meet the criteria for the grant, but we had been unsuccessful in two previous bids to other organisations and we were desperate for this one to succeed.”

Fortunately, Horse Rangers’ application was successful, and the pilot project for Squadron 7 is now up and running, with ten young people currently enjoying Wednesday evening sessions from 6.15 to 7.45pm.

Sharing goals

When the RDA Horse Rangers arrive, there is that familiar excitement that heralds the start of every RDA session, but instead of getting ready to mount, they assemble in an upstairs hall above the stable block. The register is taken, weekly news is read out and the Rangers are reminded which group they are in that week: riding or stable management.

The children all wear their Horse Rangers uniform. It’s the same as the Instructors and volunteers and adds to the sense of belonging. The uniform tells you that everyone in the room shares the same goals – no matter what their role – and that everyone is there to learn and to progress. On a beam above the assembled group is a sign bearing the legend: Remember – the Horse Rangers Association is bigger than all of us.

Working together

Soon it’s time to get started. Riders are expected to help tack up their ponies, and the stable management group scour the whiteboard for their allocated jobs – anything from mucking out and filling water buckets to tack cleaning, grooming or tidying.

The children attack their work with enthusiasm and care and it genuinely seems that they don’t mind not riding – they are with their friends, they are working together, and that’s what matters. One of the Rangers gallops past – using his broom as an imaginary pony for the time being.

Sporting chance

One of the main driving forces behind Squadron 7 is Jo O’Sullivan. Jo is an RDA Group Instructor and also an Early Years Play Therapist. Through her work in the local community, Jo knows all too well how few opportunities there are for young people with special needs – and how much they are in demand. Naturally, she is also passionate about the benefits that activities such as Horse Rangers can deliver – particularly she was herself a Ranger.

“The group of children we have targeted for this project are those with relatively low levels of special needs. They might attend mainstream or special needs schools, but in each case you find they don’t tend to get the sporting opportunities that other kids do,” she explains. “Whatever their disability, when they are here we expect our RDA Horse Rangers to do everything that the other Squadrons do. It’s not always possible, but we start with the expectation that it is.”

Building confidence

As Jo talks, some of the horse care team come back to the hall for their break (a drink and healthy snack which they buy from the tuck shop), then they begin pouring over their scrapbooks. Each Horse Ranger gets their own book to stick in pictures of their favourite horses and ponies and to write something on a given topic. This week it’s ‘what I did with Horse Rangers over the Summer’, and the group shares memories of the gymkhana, and of riding out in Bushy Park.

One of the children doing stable management this week is Gemma. Gemma is missing some vocal chords and has a condition that causes her to have reduced muscle strength and coordination, particularly in her arms and hands. She chats away happily about her favourite ponies and how much she enjoys Horse Rangers.

Gemma’s mum, Andrea, says that the RDA sessions have already started to build Gemma’s confidence and helped to improve her coordination. “They also give me peace of mind,” she says. “I have always worried about her doing adventurous things because she can’t call for help or get attention if she suddenly needed it, but I have complete confidence here. I know she is safe. And it’s amazing seeing what she can do.”

Willing volunteers

Horse Rangers RDA has a problem that most other RDA groups would be happy to have: a waiting list of volunteers. The formation of Squadron 7 has helped to reduce this waiting list, since it meets at a more convenient time than the other RDA sessions that run during school hours.

Drawn from the local community and from other Horse Rangers Squadrons, a large proportion of the volunteers are teenagers. Fourteen year-old Kieran does about twelve hours of volunteering a week, and says he likes it because it’s different from what his other friends do. Other young volunteers talk about ‘always going home in a good mood’, the positive experience of making a difference and of seeing children progressing.

Expansion plans

As the session draws to an end, the Squadron regroups in the hall before goodbyes are said, the children go home and the volunteers tidy up. The nights are beginning to draw in and the talk turns to the challenges that winter will undoubtedly bring.

With no indoor school, limited outside lighting and a Grade One listed stable block that can’t be updated, no one is looking forward to the cold. But despite that, spirits are high. With plans to double the size of Squadron 7 (creating two different age groups), a seemingly unlimited list of fundraising ideas and some serious people-power, there is real optimism for the future. “Squadron 7 gives us the chance to pool the best of everything that we have at Horse Rangers,” concludes Jo. “It’s up to us to make the most of it.”

Page Last Updated: October 10, 2012