Riding for the Disabled Association’s trainee pony Toffee has been learning the ropes at Cotswold RDA, where children and adults benefit from the physical and therapeutic benefits of horse riding. The charity’s activities are also designed to be educational, and an important part of an RDA pony’s life is helping riders learn how to look after their equine friends.
Toffee’s “pocket” size and cheeky face have made him a favourite with the school groups that come to Cotswold RDA, and recently he’s been helping the kids from one class to complete their Proficiency Test in Horse Care and Knowledge. Friday afternoons at Cotswold RDA are a hive of activity as a minibus draws up outside and a lively group of primary school children come bustling into the indoor arena, excited and ready for their weekly RDA session.
Today, they are here to take their Grade One Horse Care Proficiency Test. Toffee is partnered with Alice, who likes him because toffees are her favourite sweets. “The test includes both riding and horse care elements,” RDA Coach and Education Manager Heather explains. “So we split the lesson in two and half of the children ride first while the others do horse care and then we swap.”
The first challenge for Alice and Toffee is grooming – an important part of keeping ponies happy and healthy, as well as looking smart. Toffee has to wait patiently while Alice chooses the right brush from the grooming kit to give him a good rub down. She also learns how to pick out his hooves and check for stones. “Some horses really don’t like picking their feet up, but Toffee was very kind to Alice and lifted each hoof nicely,” Heather says.
Once Toffee was fully groomed – with a combed mane and tail to complete the look – it was time to quiz Alice on the parts of the horse. She took no time in correctly pointing them out on Toffee. Then it was time for tacking up. Even on a small pony like Toffee, saddles and bridles can be tricky to carry and put on, so Alice got help with this, though she had to name the reins, bit, girth and stirrups, as well as do up the buckles on the bridle herself. All tacked up, the class swapped round so Alice and Toffee could be put through their paces in the riding part of the test.
“We keep everything really relaxed, so the kids feel like it’s just a normal riding lesson,” Heather says. “It’s not designed to put anyone under pressure – not even the ponies. We’re just looking out for four or five riding skills which we know they can manage, otherwise it’s not the right time to do the test.” Toffee and Alice took it all in their stride. Alice sat happily and maintained a “balanced position at halt, in walk and during a change of rein” as per the test syllabus.
She was able to hold and steer using the reins and Toffee behaved beautifully throughout. “Proficiency tests are really about the rider, but the pony’s behaviour is a vital part of the picture,” Heather says. “Toffee has had to help Alice at every step: lifting his hooves, standing still to be groomed, keeping his head steady to be tacked up. Any messing around from Toffee would have made it impossible for Alice to complete the test.”
Fortunately, Alice passed with flying colours – and Toffee did, too! Alice and her classmates were presented with their certificates and badges by the RDA County Coach for Gloucestershire, Eileen O’Mahoney. Alice’s beaming smile said it all. “Achievements like this are a huge boost to everyone’s confidence,” Heather says. “The kids will have a great summer break and come back ready to learn even more.”