Fifty years of reminiscing: RDANI celebrate their 50th anniversary

CEO Ed Bracher presenting Jayne McMurray and Grainne Shillington with their Certificates of Long Service
CEO Ed Bracher presenting Jayne McMurray and Grainne Shillington with their Certificates of Long Service

On Monday, November 4 130 of RDANI’s volunteers gathered at the Templeton Hotel in Templepatrick for a regional conference to celebrate 50 years of RDA across the UK, writes Lady Juliet Frazer, RDANI regional chairman.

Occasions like this are a way to thank those who give up their time to give disabled riders and drivers of all ages the opportunity to participate in a sport to the benefit of their physical and mental health.

RDANI vice president and radio personality, George Jones, interviews star RDANI dressage rider, Austen Burns of Newtownrds Group

RDANI vice president and radio personality, George Jones, interviews star RDANI dressage rider, Austen Burns of Newtownrds Group

Over the last 50 years, the charity has made a significant difference in the lives of everyone it has touched – riders, drivers and volunteers.

RDA president, HRH Princess Anne once remarked that once you became involved with RDA, it was very difficult to get out.

Opening the conference, three RDA stalwarts proved exactly that, as they reminisced about their experiences in RDA over the past 50 years.

In fact for Jayne McMurray, her involvement began in 1967 when Lady Perdita Blackwood gathered together a group of riders from Fleming Fulton and Mitchell House Schools.

Happy 50th Birthday RDA

Happy 50th Birthday RDA

Together with “loads” of helpers, two shillings raised from the sale of pottery and Lady P’s ponies, the Co Down Disabled Riding Group was formed.

Two years later the group became part of The Riding for the Disabled Association and fifty years on, is still providing riding for disabled children at Cavallo Farm.

As Fleming Fulton school had their own pony and 
carriage, Jayne McMurray was asked if she would take 
the children out carriage driving.

Lucky Jayne – she drove off with her charges, around the leafy avenues of the Malone area of South Belfast, leaving her newly born son back in the care of the school staff.

In 1974, as demand for riding increased, Jayne was next asked to start an RDA group in the Lisburn area, originating at Pond Park Riding School and later moving to Mossvale near Dromara. Again the group is still in existence, now operating at Lusks Equestrian Centre where they have “great helpers, great ponies and lovely children”.

Marie Morrow’s RDA career began with the formation of Enniskillen group in 1978. Riders were picked up from their homes by RDA helpers, and driven to St Angelo Airport where they met up with their ponies.

In fact, the group still rely on privately owned ponies being transported to RDA sessions each week.

Now riding at Enniskillen Agricultural College, the group continues to thrive with great support from the local community – they have taken part in fancy dress, games, handy pony and dressage competitions. Summer picnics have involved visits to lovely venues such as Ely Lodge and Crom estate.

President, HRH Princess Anne, has visited the group on several occasions, the last visit being in 2018 for their 40th birthday celebrations.

Enniskillen was also both a vaulting and a driving group for several years with Marie being instrumental to the success of both.

As Marie pointed out, fundraising is crucial for keeping a high profile locally.

Over the years, Marie has been involved with events such as sponsored walks from Malin to Mizen, gala balls, Songs of Praise, not to mention musical evenings such as A little Night Music and Yankee Panky.

Along with Maeve Hannon, she also was invited to ride her horse around the City Hall in Belfast, while the late Ruth McVicker accompanied them by carriage.

Marie was instrumental in starting RDA Holidays in Northern Ireland in 1990.

Originally riders stayed in the Share Centre in Lisnaskea, and travelled to Crom Estate by speed boat each morning.

At Crom they were able to ride through woodland, water and fields – again the ponies had to be matched up to riders, and borrowed from kind owners.

Riders described the experience as “magical” and “like fairyland”.

The venue moved to the local Agricultural College in 1994 where more suitable accommodation was available, but après riding activities such as boat trips, karaoke and bowling continued as usual.

Grainne Shillington’s RDA career began in Co Down 50 years ago with the formation of Brentford Group.

One of their first riders, Paul, had no arms and very short legs, so the group made a basket for him to sit in on Prince Arkle – a black Shetland pony.

She regaled stories of Paul at the gymkhanas, doing dressage and going over jumps.

Other riders were allowed to lead their ponies back to the stables by tying the lead rope around their waists.

As Marie spoke, everyone was looking at each other thinking how much things have changed.

Along with Enniskillen and the Fort Centre, Grainne was involved in introducing vaulting to Northern Ireland and was also involved in “high days” such as the 25th anniversary celebrations at Shanes Castle.

Like Marie, Grainne also held the role of Northern Ireland’s regional chairman, overseeing significant upgrades in health and safety.

As RDA chief executive Ed Bracher concluded – between Jayne, Marie and Grainne, there was almost 150 years of volunteering. It just goes to prove that our president, HRH Princess Anne was right.

After certificates for long service had been presented to many volunteers, the delegates moved to Laurel View Equestrian Centre to watch demonstrations of RDA driving and dressage.

Thank you to all of the volunteers who attended – RDANI hope you had a lovely day celebrating your achievements and catching up with others from groups across the province. Here’s to the next 50 years.

The Northern Ireland Region of the Riding for the Disabled Association currently has 30 groups, 1,000 volunteers and 1,000 riders and drivers.

By working directly with 18 care centres and 40 schools, along with individuals, the Riding for the Disabled (RDA) seeks to help those who will benefit most from the therapy achieved through horse riding while encouraging riders to reach their full potential and compete at the top level.

The advantages of horse riding come in many forms ranging from building muscle tone to encouraging self confidence and improving balance.

For children and adults with learning disabilities and mobility problems the RDA provides access to one of the very few outdoor activities available for the disabled community.

At the moment the RDA are keen to recruit new volunteers who would be able to give up some time to help with weekly sessions, or horse owners who would be willing to loan their horse/pony for these riding lessons.

If you would be interested in hearing more about this occasion or about your local groups experiences, please do not hesitate to contact Lady Julie Frazer, regional chairman, by email at rdaniregion@yahoo.co.uk.