How the lives of disabled children are being transformed by the work of Chigwell riding school

At the end of a year which saw the Paralympics be a huge success, an idyllic farm setting in Chigwell with its own medal-winning connections helps disabled people enjoy riding.

Very few of the young people who currently visit Chigwell Riding Trust centre at Grange Farm in High Road, Chigwell, will go on to win a medal at the Paralympics, as former rider Liz Stone did when she claimed a silver medal in 1996.

However, under the guidance of manager Deborah Hall and 100 volunteers, they could make individual breakthroughs thanks to their time in the saddle, such as learning how to walk.

About 150 riders a week with special needs – many of them children, some as young as two – are taken on horses in the trust’s two arenas and, when it’s warmer, in surrounding farmland.

As Deborah, 57, explains, it helps children with disabilities, such as scoliosis, which causes a curvature of the spine, or joint disorders such as arthrogryposis, to sit up and, in some cases, learn how to walk.

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She said: “The horse’s movement in walk, it rotates the pelvis in the same fashion as we do walking.

“It sends messages to the rider’s brain. I know that’s the case, that’s why they [the children] learn to walk.

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“It doesn’t happen for everybody but, for those who have the potential to walk, it will happen far quicker.”

For other children, the experience will improve confidence and communication skills, with Deborah describing the “amazing” bond she has seen between some autistic children who visit the centre and the horses.

Young people come from Redbridge and neighbouring boroughs to take part and are greeted by cats, dogs, chickens and Oscar, a 22-year-old parrot, at what was the first purpose-built riding centre for people with special needs worldwide when it opened in 1964.

The horses and ponies, all chosen for their gentle nature, are often donated by friends of the trust.

The trust relies upon fees paid by parents and fundraising with regular events organised such as barn dances, open days and a recent carol service.

Deborah said: “We have to raise every penny, there’s no State aid funding.”

She first came while working for a commercial yard, starting a 31-year association which saw her awarded an MBE in 2009 for her services to disabled people.

She said: “I was asked to help some disabled adults and children riding.

“I said I’d give it a go. I was lucky to find my niche.”

The centre also relies heavily on volunteers, including the Recorder team who visited to help during Mitzvah Day in November.

Volunteers help the children by leading the horses, with one in front and two on either side to provide encouragement to the rider, or by doing general farm tasks.

Keith Godwin, of Buckhurst Hill, who has been helping for six years, said: “I say if you’re going to volunteer, you couldn’t have a better location and get a better organisation.”

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