SUPPORT OUR JOURNALISM: Please consider donating to keep our website running and free for all - thank you!

Features

Anne at 70: An interview with Riding for the Disabled


Riding for the Disabled

Riding horses has been a passion of the Princess Royal’s ever since childhood, so it’s no surprise that she’s actively involved in several horse-centred charities, including Riding for the Disabled (RDA).

In 2015, she marked 40 years of working with the organisation, which provides more than 25,000 disabled children and adults a year with riding and carriage driving opportunities. The Princess Royal also serves as patron of RDA New Zealand and Australia. 

RDA runs about 500 regional centres across the UK, and the Princess Royal often visits these locations to meet with local riders benefitting from their services for therapy, fitness, achievement, and fun. The advantages of riding are immense, with the charity reporting physical and emotional benefits, better communication skills, and greater confidence.

Anne gave a rare TV interview in 2019 to mark RDA’s 50th anniversary, telling BBC’s Countryfile how riding “had other values which could really change people’s lives, you didn’t have to want to be an Olympic athlete for that to happen.”

In July, Princess Anne held a video call with the charity to talk about how they have been faring during the pandemic, and learned how not being able to ride has impacted some of the members’ wellbeing. “Anything like this will I hope increase the argument that this is not an optional extra or just a kind of fun for many of them,” she said. “It really means something to their ability to live their lives.”

Photo: RDA/Chris Watt

Royal Central spoke with Caroline Ward, communications manager at Riding for the Disabled, about the Princess Royal’s dedication to the charity over so many years and how they’ve been able to pivot during the pandemic.

Kristin Contino: Princess Anne has been a keen horsewoman her entire life. Do you think that brings a different element to her involvement with RDA versus a non-rider? What is it like working with her? 

Caroline Ward: The Princess’s knowledge and understanding of horses is a hugely important factor when it comes to her involvement in RDA (which began in 1971 when she became our Patron, before becoming President in 1985). First and foremost, her own interest in horses means she instinctively understands the power of the horse/human partnership – and the multiple benefits it brings. She knows why our activities make such a difference to the lives of adults and children with disabilities, and the important part RDA plays in opening up the world of horses to so many.

We are fortunate that The Princess gives so much of her time to RDA, carrying out a dozen or so group visits and engagements each year. She takes an active role in the running of RDA UK, and often Chairs our AGM, but it the group visits  – where she meets the riders and horses – where that familiarity and expertise in all things equine really shines through. She always takes time to talk to riders about their ponies and quickly puts people at ease over that shared love of horses. She understands and acknowledges the time and commitment given by our volunteers, and what it takes to be a good RDA coach.

Working with The Princess is always a joy. It means a lot to our volunteers and riders when she pays a visit so those days always feel special. Even though she is usually on a tight schedule, she never makes it seem rushed, taking time out to ask questions, stop and take an interest in something new and really understand the lives of the people she meets.  

Photo: Riding for the Disabled

Last month, the Princess Royal held a video call with RDA members versus an in-person engagement. How else have you been forced to change how you operate these past few months when people might not be able to ride?

The closure of all our groups due to COVID-19 back in March has had a massive impact on the whole organisation. Obviously no one could do their usual RDA activities of riding or carriage driving, so our groups did an amazing job of finding other ways to keep in touch and keep their communities together.

There were lots of zoom meetings and quizzes, some virtual fitness classes, lots of photos of the horses and updates on how they were managing on their ‘unscheduled holidays’ – there was even the odd Zoom call with a favourite pony. Our volunteers have embraced new ways of keeping in touch, holding meetings and AGMs, supporting their riders and their families and their ability to innovate has been awe-inspiring.

With lockdown easing, we have started to reopen – but in a small way and often quite differently from how we did things before. Due to social distancing, the only people who can ride are those that can do so without additional support, so we are finding new ways for people to get their ‘pony fix.’ Some groups have set up ‘Quiet corners’ and other designated safe spaces for riders to come with their families and spend some time with the horses, maybe feeding or grooming them. Obviously our groups are having to work within new guidelines and practices to keep themselves and their riders safe, and they are doing an amazing job of getting to grips with new ways of doing things. Everyone is looking forward to a time when they can get to riding or carriage driving though.

What’s ahead for RDA in the next year? How do you see the Princess Royal helping as you recover from the effects of the pandemic?  

In the coming months, we want all our groups to find ways to reopen, even in a small way, to be able to offer new or adapted activities for their clients. Fundraising is going to be a huge challenge. Our groups lost a lot of income from lessons and cancelled fundraising events and will need support from their local communities and supporters. RDA UK has a ‘Resilience Appeal’ live at the moment to help us respond, rebuild and recover from lockdown.

The Princess has played a vital role in supporting RDA through this crisis. She has taken an active interest in the challenges we face as an organisation, and in the individual difficulties experienced by many in our community during this time. Her understanding of horses and the needs of our clients means she has been able to suggest new and adapted activities that groups might try, and she is as committed as everyone to the return to normal activity levels as soon as possible. As lockdown eases, the princess will hope to carry out group visits once again, which will be a huge boost to our community, following what has undoubtedly been a very tough few months.

Learn more about Riding for the Disabled or contribute to their Resilience Appeal at www.rda.org.uk/donate.

About author

Kristin is Chief Reporter for Royal Central and has been following the British royal family for more than 30 years. Kristin has appeared in UK and U.S. media outlets discussing the British royals including BBC Breakfast, BBC World News, Sky News, the Associated Press, TIME, The Washington Post, and many others.