Riding with purpose
FOR more than four decades, Margaret Battye has watched children and adults come alive as they’re lifted onto a horse’s back.
Having volunteered with Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) Barwon for 43 years, Ms Battye said horses give riders with disabilities a sense of freedom, but most importantly, the feeling of being understood.
“Sometimes children with a disability have difficulty, especially if they’re non-verbal, making others recognise what they want but a horse understands.
“Children often feel more understood by horses than people. The horse senses your moods. People say race horses and gallopers can be highly strung, but you put a young child on a race horse or a galloper and they’re the quietest thing. They sense what the rider needs.”
Ahead of National Volunteer Week, which runs from May 18-24, Ms Battye said there was much reward to be had for those who wish to give something back to others.
“Volunteering at RDA teaches young people not to be critical, to be more sympathetic and have empathy with people they feel are not as capable.
“Everybody has a role in life, whether you have a disability or not. Volunteering makes you a better person, it fills a void in your life.
“I think it opens the eyes of volunteers. I always say ‘There for the grace that God gave them’. We’re lucky, no matter what’s happened to you, you’re still lucky.”
From the Mallee to Western Australia working on stations as a jillaroo, Ms Battye’s led an eventful life but after the loss of a child, turned to volunteering.
“I had never worked with children with a disability before. I found in the early days, that most volunteers got involved because they too were experiencing some emotional hardship.
“Being a volunteer and part of the group, it filled a need; everybody has a story. The Barwon branch of RDA was started in 1976 by Jane Neville on her property Darriwill in Lovely Banks.
“She would use her own horses, and other peoples. I was part of the CWA (Country Women Association) and everybody knew everybody. I’d ride horses from a neighbouring property over to Jane’s.”
RDA Barwon moved to the Australian Equestrian Academy in Wallington in 1993, where it remained for a few years before relocating to its present location at Koombahla Park.
Ms Battye said the sessions were held twice weekly and run entirely by volunteers who never received any form of payment, something that still continues today.
“I’ve been a Pony Club and RDA coach for 37 years now. When I first started volunteering, if you had a child with a disability, they were often hidden in the back room, or not allowed out.
“One child that would come riding was never taken anywhere by her parents because she dribbled. We found the riding helped her lift her head; that was 40 years ago.
“Children with a disability were once treated by some like they were a strange atrocity, but now there’s so much more understanding. People look for the person behind the disability.”
Ms Battye said there are eight “wonderful” coaches at RDA Barwon, who have put in years of work and study to be able to give children and adults the opportunity to ride.
“They don’t get paid and do such a wonderful job. One coach had a child that used to come, and now they’re helping to provide the service to other children.”