Neil Thomas visits a pioneering centre near Much Wenlock to hear about a powerful partnership of ponies and people.
The young man did not speak nor make eye contact. Despite the gentle coaxing of those with him, he appeared overwhelmed.
That was Damieon on his first visit to the Cavalier Riding Centre, at Much Wenlock. He was first to enrol on the charity’s Steps in the Right Direction programme. Its aim was to try to help him overcome the crippling shyness, anxiety and low self-esteem that were blighting his life chances.
Within a few visits, Damieon was on his feet, speaking to an audience of visitors about his love of the centre and its ponies.
He went on to complete an internship at the centre and undertook an Equine Management Course at Reaseheath College, Nantwich, as his confidence blossomed. Three years after his first faltering steps, he is a big part of life at The Cavalier Riding Centre as one of its regular volunteers.
“I have a passion and desire to work with animals but have had some tough times in the past and really needed some help so that I can reach my goals in life,” Damieon recalls.
“I was feeling really nervous on my first day but knowing that I would have a job coach to help and support me, helped me to feel more confident in myself. Everyone made me feel really welcome, the staff were really nice.”
The Steps course is led by Lynette Fryer, the centre’s Skills Development Project Coordinator.
“Taking part on the course with Lynette really helped me,” Damieon continued. “We talked about lots of things which have happened in my life and how this has affected me and we talked about how I can push through difficulties to help me feel more self-confident and improve my self-esteem. We talked about ways to reach my goals in life.
“I had gained my Level 2 Animal Management Diploma with Merit from Reaseheath College previously, which I’m really proud of. We talked about what further people and professional skills I needed so that in the future I can gain employment in animal care, and what I need to work on to help me move onto the next steps in my life and personal development.”
Damieon had riding lessons, which helped his confidence grow, as well as learning about looking after horses and the many jobs that need to be done in yard and stables.
“It is good that the centre is here because it gives people who are struggling and who have challenges, a chance to grow in confidence, build communication, work as a team and have fun. It is good at overcoming any negativity people may have faced that stops them doing what they love.”
Damieon is a powerful advocate for The Cavalier Riding Centre, not least because he represents thousands of people of all ages whose lives are immeasurably better for its existence. All have their own stories, with individual challenges and different ways of measuring achievement and personal fulfilment.
There is no place quite like it in the country – certainly few that can match its scale and ambition. The acknowledgement that horses can help humans to better physical and mental health is nothing new – the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) was, after all, founded more than 50 years ago.
“Horses are essentially uncomplicated animals, living in the moment. They don’t worry about what might happen tomorrow so they are for the most part calm and this transmits itself to us,” explains Centre Manager Rachel Lambert-Jones. “It is very relaxing to be in the company of a fellow creature that is not weighed down by care and anxiety. It’s the same with other animals which is why pets are considered to be so good for us.”
The Cavalier Centre has its roots in the RDA but has moved the charity’s ethos to exciting new levels. This becomes increasingly apparent as Rachel shows me around the complex. It gives me chance to admire the state-of-the-art facilities and watch a class of primary aged children from a special school in Telford interacting with ponies. The youngsters’ smiles and expressions of wonder, spoke volumes. This enchanting spectacle was in the Bradbury indoor arena, named for the charitable foundation which helped to fund it. This is a 70m by 30m arena with an Andrews Bowen sand fibre surface, an integrated PA system for microphone and music, a sophisticated hydraulic lift to help riders onto their mount, dressage mirrors and a viewing gallery.
The Cavalier is also developing the adjoining Little Bradbury Arena, a mini-version which is ideal for those who feel uncomfortable in large open spaces.
And then there’s Perry. He’s a beauty, around 15hh (hands high), who can walk, trot, canter and perform dressage movements. Oh, yes, and he’s mechanical. Made by leading equine simulator manufacturer Racewood, based in Tarporley, Cheshire, Perry’s integrated sensors are linked with a laptop interface so that riders can interact with a large TV screen. Perry can be operated manually by rider or instructor and is a fantastic tool for an instructor.
At the centre of it all are the horses, of course. “Although we refer to them all as ponies, despite the fact there are a few horses,” says Rachel with a smile. They are the stars of the show. As we stroll the grounds, the first hints of summer are in the air and they are basking in warm sunshine. Most are in the central paddock, girded by the carriage track, with a couple more roaming an open field.
Rachel calls to them by name and a few are happy to amble over to the hedge to say hello including Finn, a 13-year-old black cob with a white stripe and four socks; piebald Gypsy cob Theo who is 18 and the lively Caspa, a small and feisty 24 year-old grey, a pure bred Caspian, who trots alongside us to make sure he doesn’t miss out on any action. Pointedly ignoring us is Stubbs, the 25-year-old chestnut Haflinger, with flaxen mane and tail, who remains aloof.
“Horses have their pecking order and they keep to it. Stubbs is definitely the boss,” explains Rachel.
“We ensure they live as naturally as possible here. They are outside in the field or paddock as much as possible and only tend to spend time in the stables if they need attention for any reason.”
The horses are involved in a range of activities with their human partners including riding, carriage driving, vaulting (gymnastics on horseback), hippotherapy (physio on horseback) and horse care. You can even take Tea with a Pony.
As Damieon illustrated, the Cavalier Centre offers a range of other programmes involving the ponies, that help people to develop life skills, emotional intelligence and wellbeing. Changing Lives Through Horses, for instance, is a programme of horse-related learning activities plus riding if suitable. Customed-designed to each individual, it is for five to 25 year-olds who are not, for one reason or another, in education, employment or training and aims to empower and improve their lives. The programme is delivered by qualified and experienced BHS (British Horse Society) accredited professional coaches.
Stable Relationships is an intensive emotional intelligence course aimed at young people at risk of being, or are already, excluded from school, those struggling in foster or residential care or those at risk of being involved in, or who are already involved in, anti-social behaviour. Sessions include riding and other equine activities plus classroom sessions. Topics include brain development and reaction to calm and stress in horses and humans; how to develop a trusting relationship with a horse and calming techniques. The dozen 90-minute sessions are for those aged between eight and 18.
Hippotherapy helps children aged from three years who struggle to lift their heads, play on the floor or make their first steps. It is run by chartered physiotherapist Irma Prins, a best-selling author on the subject, who runs her practice from the Cavalier Centre.
A range of other events and activities include wellbeing days for parents and carers combining horse care, yoga and massage; craft and pony care mornings and talks and demonstrations.
Given that the core ethos of the Cavalier Centre is to improve health and wellbeing, its setting in lovely open countryside at Farley, on the edge of Much Wenlock, is surely a factor. The complex, too, is new, modern, smart and, considering it is home to horses, remarkably clean. It is testament to the pride its team of three full time staff, led by Rachel, three part-timers and an army of 200 volunteers takes in its appearance. With plenty of smiles, they help to give the centre its defining feelgood factor.
“Our staff and volunteers are the lifeblood of the place. We simply couldn’t operate without the volunteers, the people who lend their experience of horses, their practical skills, time and enthusiasm. They are priceless,” Rachel says. “Our volunteers support lessons, help care for the horses and keep them in top condition, carry out groundwork, cleaning and administration, as well as run activities. They come from all backgrounds, generally united by a love of horses.”
As well as the afore-mentioned Lynette, Rachel’s team includes yard managers Annabel Bolton and Lisa Bartlett, yard coordinators Zara Philpott and Jessica Pink, activities and events coordinator Richard Belcham and volunteer and participant coordinator Jane Johnson, who was helping to run the special school activities I saw during my visit.
Lisa, Annabel and Jessica are also in the team of qualified RDA coaches which also includes Tina Pemberton, Alex Whittle, Tom Friswell, Ann Connolly, Sally Austin, Louisa Birch, Giselle Lockett, Rachel Reilly, Sue Sheddon, Isobel Standen, Julie Wedgbury, Gina Saunders, Penny McLellan and Jane Barker.
Jane, though, is far more than a riding and vaulting coach. For the Cavalier Centre story really starts with Jane. Back in 1995 she founded the Perry Riding for the Disabled Group at her home near Baschurch, initially to help severely disabled young people from Severndale School in Shrewsbury for whom there were no RDA sessions available anywhere else in Shropshire.
It started with two ponies and four helpers, gradually increasing over the years as demand and donations increased. Carriage driving was started, then vaulting was added with a group of autistic youngsters with great results in terms of behaviour and improved social interaction.
Perry’s progress meant the charity was always likely to outgrow the site and, after years of trying to find a new location, the Willey Estate at Broseley offered the current location, Bradley Farm. The offer also came with the relentless energy and support of Willey Estate owners Catherine Lady Forester and her daughter Selina Graham, the 2022-23 High Sheriff of Shropshire.
Planning permission was granted in the winter of 2014 and a fundraising team set about raising the £1.4million needed to build the centre.
Fast forward to a fine April day in 2019 and the HRH The Princess Royal officially opened the new centre in front of a large crowd of supporters and sponsors.
Within a year, the centre’s activities were put on hold as the Covid 19 pandemic swept the world. It would be another year before the centre started to run properly again.
“It was such a sad time for so many people who lost friends and family,” reflects Rachel. “From our point of view, it was very frustrating to close within a year after all the work that went into setting up the centre. It was a very anxious and worrying time because we couldn’t deliver the services that make such a difference to people’s lives.”
Despite the fallout from the pandemic, the centre has continued to develop and reach new people, thanks to the determination of its volunteers and staff and ceaseless fundraising.
The Cavalier Centre needs £250,000 a year to keep going, with not a single penny of state aid, despite making a significant contribution to improving mental and physical health amongst those facing a range of challenges that undoubtedly impact on wider society.
One of Rachel’s key roles is to spearhead the raising of this sum. She researches potential grant aid, gets out and about in the community to champion the centre’s life-changing work and inspires others to give of their time and money to keep it all going. The facilities are available to hire by the community and provide another revenue stream
Jane Barker (Group Organiser), Lady Forester (Vice-President) and Selina Graham (Chair) continue to serve the centre to this day as members of the 12-strong board of trustees who bring a wealth of experience and knowledge.
“We have such dedicated supporters and some incredible corporate sponsors. We have also started a new Friends scheme as another way for people to support us,” Rachel says. “Without all of these fantastic supporters and sponsors we could not do what we do,”
And what they do is make a difference to people like Damieon – and Alison, Amy, Sue, Florence, Julia and Charlotte, whose full stories you can read on the website, cavaliercentre.org/success-stories. If only there was room to recount them all here. They are truly inspiring.
Rachel says the vision is to grow and develop the centre still further over the next few years.
“Our ambition is to improve even more lives through activities based around our incredible team of horses, work with volunteers, partners and supporters to benefit the community and become a centre of excellence for wellbeing and equestrianism to be enjoyed by all.
“Our belief is that horses make a difference. It underpins everything we do.”
Visit cavaliercentre.org.uk, email email@example.com or call 01952 443752 for more information.