Birtle and Rochdale Riding for Special Needs is based at Birtle Riding School in Bury and provides disabled children and adults with the opportunity to ride a horse, which benefits them in numerous ways.

The group allows individual’s social skills to improve as they mix with other disabled people as well as able-bodied people. When on the back of a horse, everyone is seen as equal and the rider’s self-esteem is boosted. The group’s members use muscle groups that they never normally use, which helps to bring strength to weaker parts of the body, and they are able to take part in an activity that enables them to gain a skill which is completely outside their normal range of activity.

All of the helpers at the group are volunteers and are drawn from various parts of the local community. The group are also involved with local schools and, once a week, pupils from the local grammar school help them out. The group also has connections with local schools for special needs who send them riders and also help out with volunteers from time to time.

One volunteer began working with the group seven years ago and has taken great reward from working with them: “One afternoon a week I help out on one of the sessions to get the ponies ready, greet the riders when they arrive, help them to get riding hats and other safety equipment on, and then help them safely on to their horses. We then either take them out in the nearby countryside for a ride or, if the weather is bad, stay in our indoor arena and play games and have a ‘riding lesson’ which goes down really well.

“What struck me the most at first was the obvious pleasure that the children get from interacting with, and being on the back of, a horse. Some of our children can’t speak very well, or at all, and yet they convey by their smiles and expressions how much they enjoy their time with us. I was particularly touched by a young autistic girl. Her parents told me that she was very distant and unaffectionate, but she slowly struck up a close friendship with Copper, the pony she always rode.

“One day – after about eight weeks with us – when she got off Copper at the end of the session she turned round and put her arms around the pony’s neck and gave her a kiss! Her parents were absolutely elated. They had never seen her do that before and it brought a lump to my throat as well.

“About five years ago I was asked to be Chair of the group’s committee, which I had no hesitation in doing. It is so rewarding to see the interaction between the riders and the animals. Horses by their nature are quite nervous, edgy characters, but somehow they seem to know when the person riding them is vulnerable and I can honestly say I have never seen a pony put a foot wrong or react in any way when a rider is noisy or nervous or is struggling with their balance as sometimes happens – it really is quite remarkable.

“We also have a team of very dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers who support us all year round and it is a privilege to be involved with them all. We are the only group of this type in the area so we are determined to keep going as we couldn’t bear to let down our riders. I personally get so much out of the time I spend with this group and I feel that I am helping a very worthwhile and unique cause.”