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Barrow Farm RDA: Charity enriches disabled people’s lives through horseriding

PUBLISHED: 10:04 24 May 2016

Emma Harris

Emma Harris

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For the last 40 years, Barrow Farm RDA near Chelmsford has been giving a new sense of freedom and independence to disabled people through horse riding. Janet Doghan shares the story

Emma HarrisEmma Harris

In May 2016, Barrow Farm RDA near Chelmsford is celebrating 40 years of riding high. The registered charity gives people with special needs and disabilities a chance to develop their abilities and enrich their lives through riding.

120 riders aged from six years to 70 use the centre each week, helped by more than 100 volunteers. Barrow Farm is one of only two centres in Essex with facilities to enable those with complex disabilities to ride specially-trained ponies and riders come from all over Essex, from as far afield as Harlow, Colchester, Ilford, Southend and Maldon.

Founded in 1976 by Mary and Peter Mitchell, Barrow Farm is now managed by their daughter, Anne, who was awarded the MBE in 2014 for services to riding for the disabled. Anne says: ‘We are marking the anniversary year by carrying out a much-needed refurbishment of our amenity block, so that it is suitably fit to support riders, volunteers and others.’

The project will provide new accessible toilets, a changing/shower room, a modern kitchen and a pleasant waiting room allowing parents and carers to watch riders.

So how did it all begin 40 years ago? In April 1976 a leaflet was put through the door of the Mitchell family who lived on a farm in Highwood. It suggested ways to help or maybe start a riding for the disabled group. Anne, the daughter, had just left a job as a riding instructor in Middlesex and the family had ponies and fields, so the family decided to start a group. Mum Mary would be the group organiser and Anne could teach one morning a week.

Barrow Farm was visited by regional and county representatives from Riding for the Disabled and Carriage Driving (RDA), who were enthusiastic and supportive, offering lots of help and advice. They put the Mitchell family in touch with Woodlands School in Chelmsford, who had been looking for somewhere for students to ride and couldn’t wait to get going.

The first ride was on a Monday in May, in 1976, and 12 children arrived in a mini bus. Mary had put together an excellent team of helpers, and with advice and help from the head teacher and her staff, the first session was a success.

Word quickly spread and by the autumn of 1976 more local schools were participating and it was clear that riders wanted to ride all year round. Unable to cope outdoors in the winter cold, it was decided to take the ponies by horsebox to the nearby indoor arena at Norton Heath.

The ponies went everywhere to promote Barrow Farm RDA and raise funds. They took part in carnivals, displays, pony rides and fancy dress competitions. A team of fundraisers also set about raising funds for an indoor school.

In August 1981, the shell of the indoor school was built. Flooring, lights and kickboards followed as grants were secured and money raised. The area which now houses the amenity rooms remained an empty shell for another three years while more money was raised. Finally everything was finished and in October 1984 the Princess Royal officially opened the indoor school.

Demand for riding continued to increase. Elmbrook School from Basildon, Haywards School from Chelmsford, Little Highwood Occupational Centre and Chelmsford Training Centre all sent students, and yet more riders came with their parents after school and at weekends. By the mid 1980s, Barrow Farm was fulfilling a well established need, but was struggling to pay off an overdraft for the development of the indoor school, so a great deal more energy was put into fundraising.

In 1995 Barrow Farm RDA was chosen by staff of a local company as their charity of the year and to this day the firm still generously supports the work. Thanks to them and others, £20,000 was raised to build an outdoor riding arena. The indoor riding school is very hot in warm weather and the outdoor arena provides the opportunity for riders to enjoy the sense of space, sunshine and breeze.

Over the intervening years there have been many changes. More ponies have joined the Barrow Farm team and sadly some of the original ones have died. The stable block has been extended and refurbished, and Saturdays have became very busy, as many riders were integrated into mainstream education and could only attend on weekends. Riders competed successfully at the RDA regional competitions and at the national championships, giving many riders an unforgettable experience.

One such rider is Emma Harris from Billericay. In her early thirties, she has severe cerebral palsy. Her four limbs, balance and speech are affected and she is a permanent electric wheelchair user. She has been riding at Barrow Farm for more than 15 years and has made outstanding progress.

She says: ‘I have wanted to ride for as long as I can remember. Riding gives me a sense of achievement. I feel independent; free from my chair and from needing anyone. Since I started riding my core strength and balance have improved immensely. Barrow Farm has given me the opportunity to fulfil my childhood dream and my riding means loads to me.’

In 2011 Emma was invited to join the board of trustees who meet every two months to lead and govern the charity. She says: ‘I enjoy giving something back and doing what I can. The improvement project this summer will make things so much better for everyone. There will be greater privacy and more space for disabled people using the toilets. The planned low work surface in the kitchen will be great as well as the lower hatchway for serving. Plus there will be a camera and TV viewing system which will allow people to watch without distracting the ponies will be fabulous.’

Get involved

With running costs in the region of £150,000 per annum, riders pay a small contribution and the remainder comes from generous individual donors, many local companies, grant making trusts and legacies. A series of fundraising events and a private appeal are planned during 2016. Anyone wishing to support the appeal should call 01277 822927 or email barrowfarmrda@googlemail.com. Events include an Open Day at Barrow Farm on May 14 and a Gala Evening Dinner Dance at Stock Brook Manor on October 7. For further information go to www.barrowfarmrda.org.uk.

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