The Healing Power of Horses

Something wonderful happens three mornings a week near Bensafrim. Many people know nothing about it. Riding for the Disabled Barlavento (Associação de Equitação Adaptada do Barlavento) is a voluntary, non-profit organisation that provides horse riding lessons for disabled people. A committed and reliable team of horse managers and volunteers give their time to enriching the lives of adults and youngsters from the area.

RDB is based at the Centro Hípico do Quinta Paraíso Alto, owned by Jinny Harman. QPA Horse Riding Centre has been an established riding school and trekking centre since 1992. 

In 2007, Jinny (RDB secretary) and Rod Frew (President of the General Assembly) formulated a plan to ride the Via Algarviana. “We organised a group of 20 horses and riders,” remembers Rod. “We rode 240 km from Alcoutim to Cape St. Vincent, raising 35,000€, which was divided between charities. A part was used to start RDB under the original leadership of Frank Bulmer.”

At QPA, Jinny owns many horses that range from reliable, trusty school ponies to competition horses. “We specially select those with calm and obedient temperaments for the RDB sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings,” she points out.

“Conscientious teamwork enables us to provide this service,” states Sue Wilson, who conducts the classes along with Angela Mesquita. Sue is the general manager of QPA and a fully qualified riding instructor with more than 30 years of equestrian experience. Angela is a dedicated and qualified adult and paediatric physiotherapist. Both have had extensive training and experience with disabled people.

Horse riding benefits pupils with multiple learning difficulties and those with physical problems. “Initially, each pupil must get the go-ahead from a medical doctor, and then we conduct our own assessments,” explains Angela. “We determine whether the applicant likes horses, can sit on one and is able to respond to instructions.” 

Maddie Grossey, the committee president and a key member, devotedly organises the volunteers. “During the lessons, each rider has three helpers; two side walkers from our team of amazing volunteers and an experienced lead walker. Volunteers play a vital role; we need at least eight for each session. We are very much in need of more people to help.”

Incorporated into the lessons are fun games, which include stretching exercises. The games help the pupils with numeracy and letter recognition while providing a unique multi-sensory experience. The participants are encouraged to give orders to the horses and are obliged to follow instructions from Sue and Angela.

On horseback, the pupils connect with the animal. They feel the comforting warmth, smell the earthy scent of the creature, and hear the hooves on the ground and the noises of the animals’ breathing. The horses and riders get to know each other, thereby forming a rapport and a strong bond. 

“The horseback activity invigorates the riders’ muscles and increases their stamina, coordination, concentration and balance. Riding simulates human walking motion, thus teaching rhythmical patterns to the leg muscles and strengthening the rider’s core,” relays Angela, the physiotherapist. “The pupils also enjoy being outside in the fresh air and nature.”


At the end of each lesson, some of the riders are encouraged to lie with their heads on a cushion towards the back of the horse. Many relax there for ages, calmly hugging and patting the animal. When the pupil dismounts, they thank the horse and the helpers. “If a pupil misbehaves,” mentions Maddie, “We take them off, and they are asked to apologise to the horse before they are allowed to mount again!”

The RDB team are incredibly kind to the riders, clearly conveying that they are proud of them. Encouraging and praising the pupils instils confidence and ensures they feel cared for and loved. 

“We are very pleased that two of our pupils have been selected to represent Portugal in the Special Olympics World Games, which are held every four years,” remarks Sue. Athletes compete in regional and national championships to be selected to participate. Lucelia Glória from Neci, a school in Luz, was chosen as part of the team of four riders who represented Portugal in the last World Games four years ago. Sue and Angela accompanied Lucelia to Abu Dhabi, where she brought home silver medals for the Working Trail and the English Equitation competitions. “Angela and I will join Cristina Silva, one of our riders, in June at the World Games in Berlin, where she will be one of four athletes representing Portugal. This experience is exciting for Cristina and we at RDB all support her wholeheartedly.” 

Twins Alice and Mathilde, now nine years old, have been attending RDB lessons for the last two years. Ana, their mother, is delighted with their progress. “I am so happy that my girls come here for lessons every week. They really look forward to it. The parents of disabled people in Portugal get little financial support from the state. Children with Downs Syndrome develop well with help, but the help is expensive. They can integrate into society with guided professional assistance but are unlikely to without it. Coming to these weekly classes helps hugely with my girls’ development mentally, emotionally and physically. I am so grateful to RDB.”

These lessons are also beneficial for the children’s parents. “To see my girls happy makes me happy, “ says Valter, the twins’ father. 

Luan is seven and has been riding with RDB for three years. He started on a Shetland pony and has progressed to riding Romeo, a handsome horse. Every week Luan gets stronger and his posture is now impeccable.

Tenney Cotton is RDB’s treasurer and a keen, reliable helper at the lessons. “As the bookkeeper for RDB, I see what a delicate position we are in financially. To function, we need monetary donations, volunteers and sponsors to be forthcoming. We have many disabled people on our waiting list but, unfortunately, we are unable to take on more.”

Group lessons are helpful for the participants’ socialisation, encouraging them to chat and to feel part of a team. Along with riding, they are also taught how to groom the horses. 

Each parent, carer and all at RDB are delighted at the progress of every one of the riders. It is fascinating and beautiful to watch. Rosie Taylor, a volunteer for six months, loves coming to classes. “It’s exhilarating and uplifting to see how quickly some of these pupils’ balance and agility are improved. It is also fantastic to see the joy on their faces!”

Photos © Dave Sheldrake


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