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Reign of Princess

Inside a circle of native trees, a 33-year-old horse called Princess carries riders to a state of peace and relaxation once a week.

Steady and docile, Princess was gifted to Wairarapa Riding for the Disabled [RDA] by Lynne Woodhouse of Pongoroa and, for at least 15 years, the mare has graciously done her duty.

“Princess is the matriarch of the team,” Wairarapa RDA branch committee member Dianne Gates said.

The mare is a former packhorse and was involved in Pony Club and trekking before her life at RDA. Her teammates include two Kaimanawa ponies.

RDA sits on picturesque land behind Masterton AFC football club. Every Thursday during the school term, the eight ponies and horses are brought from their paddock to the stables by a team of red-shirted volunteers.

The complex is idyllic, with outdoor and indoor arenas linked by small buildings including a tack room for riding equipment, an office, and the all-important kitchen and meeting room.

RDA is not about riding horses repetitively in circles. Each rider has
a personalised plan tailored to their needs and conditions, with each part of the Masterton complex designed for a therapeutic experience.

“Horses have a unique way of bonding with people,” Gates said, as she walked around the native tree-and-creek trail, through the steering maze, past the fountain and through the sensory walk, lined with interesting objects.

“Horses get people off the ground and their rocking motion moves through the rider’s body. We use sheepskins on the horse’s back, so riders feel maximum movement.”

Riders progress through sensory or exercise goals – the large indoor arena has letters on the wall, where riders can practise spelling their names from horseback.

One RDA regular is Mason Martin, who has been attending for three school terms. The Year 3 pupil from St Patrick’s School rides his favourite pony, Mimi, each week, taking part in horseback games such as “Simon Says”.

As he bends and stretches over Mimi’s neck, then reaches into the air for his exercises, Mason is visibly enjoying himself, chatting to the two volunteers walking by his side. Afterwards, he brushes Mimi and helps clean her hooves.

“Mason is a different boy when he comes here,” his mother Kara Martin said. “Animals are calming for him, and he has learnt how to treat horses and be kind to them.”

As a registered charity, Wairarapa RDA relies on bequests, donations and sponsors to operate. The horses are dispersed to farms for care during school holidays.

It is the quiet qualities of older horses which make them ideal, with horse welfare of the utmost importance.

Wairarapa RDA horse manager Mel Williams, a qualified vet, said the horses were all happy in their work.

“We always listen to our horses’ needs; they will tell us when it is time to retire,” Williams said. “We are always on the lookout for replacement horses with the right qualities.”

Gates added: “We also need more volunteers who enjoy being outside, working alongside riders and horses. They don’t need to be horse riders themselves – just comfortable around large animals and the therapy aspect of RDA.”

Wairarapa RDA was started by Logan and Ysabel Bruce, who set up a riding school on their land in Masterton. The Home of Compassion in Carterton would bring children with disabilities there. The Bruces made moves to join New Zealand RDA, becoming an affiliated branch in February 1974.

Logan and Ysabel’s daughter, Marilyn Palmer, is now volunteer co-ordinator and their son Ian is treasurer. Palmer said her parents left a lasting legacy for the community.

“Mum spent years raising money for the branch before she passed away. When Dad eventually sold the Masterton land, an acre was left to RDA to continue the riding sessions.”

The land was later extended to the current property of about seven acres.

Many community groups and businesses have supported Wairarapa RDA. “People come and trim trees, repair roofs, re-do the arenas,” Palmer said. “We have secondary schools involved in painting murals.”

Planning is underway for the 50th anniversary next year, with a Mounted Olympics one idea for celebrations.

To volunteer at Wairarapa RDA, or for more information on the charity’s services, please phone 06 378 6503.

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