A Brief History of the RDA

An Introduction to and a brief history of the Riding for the Disabled Association.

The Ancient Greeks as early as 600 B.C. and later the Romans recognised the therapeutic value of horseback riding. In Europe, France in particular, had documented the therapeutic use of horse riding as early as 1875. More recently, in the United Kingdom, Dame Agnes Hunt at the Orthopaedic Hospital at Oswestry during 1901 employed similar techniques. Later Miss Olive Sands MCSP took her horses to the Oxford Hospital to provide riding for the rehabilitation of Soldiers wounded in the trenches during the First World War. 

The achievements of Liz Hartel of Denmark are generally regarded as the impetus for the formation of therapeutic riding centres throughout Europe. Polio had impaired Hartelís mobility but not her spirit.  In 1952 she won the silver medal for Grand Prix Dressage during the Helsinki Olympics.  Medical and equine professionals took notice and very soon centres for therapeutic riding began to form throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.

In 1951 Elsbet Bodtker, having met Liz Hartel, was inspired to give lessons to young patients on her sonís ponies. She was uniquely qualified as an international rider and a Mensendieck physiotherapist, and so had the respect and approval of the doctors.

In the United Kingdom Mrs. Norah Strang, a member of the British Polio Fellowship, organized riding for children disabled by polio, at a local riding centre.  Her riders won the first national competition at Stoke Mandeville Hospitalís sports centre.  In 1957 another remarkable lady, Mrs. Jacques, made contact with a physiotherapist in Copenhagen.  By this time she had organized a team of helpers and ponies, and was offering riding to a local orthopaedic hospital. She also met Mrs. Regester who had returned from Malaya where she had been teaching disabled children to ride for some years at the request of their doctors.

Although the British medical profession was still cautious, after watching a demonstration by Mrs. Jacques and her riders at the Knightsbridge Barracks, the senior physiotherapist at St. Thomasí Hospital was impressed.  This was the start of a long and successful partnership.

Mrs. Jacques had so many enquiries that she was convinced they should start their own riding centre. The result was Grange Farm in Chigwell. A number of groups were set up by the British Red Cross Society, all of these eventually coming under the RDA umbrella.

The Princess Anne opening Hadleigh RDA on 13th June 1985The original formation of the organisation came about during 1965, but the Charity, The Riding for the Disabled Association did not come into being until 1969. At that time Lavinia, Duchess of Norfolk was president, with HRH The Princess Anne as Patron. The RDA became a Limited Company during 2004.

The RDA is in effect a Federation of some 500 small independent groups, such as The Shelley Centre, and currently supports over 26,500 adults and children by providing riding, carriage driving and vaulting each year.

In 1966 equestrianism became a Paralympic sport at the Games in Sydney. It was the largest event in Paralympics history, with 122 countries participating and it is now possible for those coming into the RDA who have the right ability and skill to eventually represent their Country as Paralympic competitors by progression through organised RDA events both regionally and nationally with the likes of Competitions held annually at Hartpury.

So many remarkable individuals helped to form the RDA as it is today, and their vision, enthusiasm and courage have developed opportunities for disabled people. RDA groups work across the spectrum of disabilities, age range, social status, and urban and rural environments.  Riding gives individuals the opportunity to reach therapeutic goals such as improving muscle tone and posture, developing social skills and communication, and can access all aspects of the school curriculum.

From simple beginnings the organisation has progressed in sophistication and has benefited greatly from the advice, training and guidance given by specialist Physiotherapists where planning and treatment programmes are developed for individuals, both children and adults alike. This, together with the introduction and evolution of special Saddles, Stirrups and Reins and the use of formal and protective riding clothing have added further to the development process and professionalism of the organisation. The organisation, at a few locations, now has in place sophisticated computerised mechanical horses, one of which is at The Shelley Centre, which can emulate the walk, trot and canter paces of a real horse thus enabling riders who for various reasons cannot ride an actual horse to experience the therapeutic benefits of horse riding.

There are always challenges: government legislation, vetting procedures, the need for qualifications and the integration of disabled young people into mainstream schools. But with such a success record the RDA can move confidently into the future.

The Riding for the Disabled Association is not only represented within the United Kingdom. There are now RDA Centres and affiliations world wide in Countries such as Australia, Singapore, South Africa The UAE and many European countries.



supporting charity without charge