Penniwells RDA: The horse riding charity that finds itself in a perilous position

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The pandemic has hit everyone hard, but not more than the vulnerable people who have to protect themselves.

An incredible charity, which helps people with disabilities, is still feeling the devastating effects of the pandemic and is fighting to continue doing its precious work.

For 41 years Penniwells Riding for the Disabled Center was nestled in the countryside of Elstree.

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Each week, their staff and army of volunteers make a difference in the lives of many people with disabilities and their families through their special connection to horses.

A foreigner may wonder, what would a few riding lessons do? But this center has built a community and gives people a purpose.

Driving helps improve people’s mobility, they gain confidence and – best of all – they make lifelong friendships.

However, the blockages and countless complications were very difficult for the mental well-being of the group.

It has also been difficult financially, and with the end of government grants and holidays, the charity is in a perilous position and needs your help.

Ponies during a pandemic



Sarah Healing has been running Penniwells for 26 years

The once bustling stables filled with riders, parents and happy faces fell silent as Britain went into lockdown.

Sarah Healing, who has run the yard for 26 years, had to put her staff on leave and close the doors to the 140 runners.

She said: “We went from being full to nothing overnight and it all stopped. We could only hear birdsong and horses.

“It was too quiet and with no people or volunteers they built this place, and without anyone coming, it was so strange.”

She kept in touch with the runners by doing weekly livestreams on Facebook, but it wasn’t always easy to stay upbeat.

She said: “There were a few times where we felt we had to tell people how it was, because it was difficult and I think people appreciated the honesty.



Sarah and Beauty in the Sun at Penniwells RDA
Sarah and Beauty in the Sun

“We had had a few problems, we had had sick ponies, we had been up all night and we were exhausted.

“We said it was bad, we had a horrible week, but people have to know – it was just the most surreal time.

“A lot of people think ‘oh, it must be awesome to go out and play ponies all day’, but it was actually really tough.

“At first it was good, but the novelty wears off because it’s such a popular place, and then the money starts to run out because you have no income.”



Sarah and Trix watch the school where the riders have their lessons at Penniwells RDA
Sarah and Trix watch the school where the riders have their lessons

Sarah and charity chairdresser Trix Summerfield admitted there was some question as to whether Penniwells would be successful in reopening.

The stables cost over £ 200,000 a year and, without lessons, they have been forced to fundraise for the vast majority of their costs.

Sarah said: “We are very optimistic and positive, we would not have let him down.

“But the reality was that if we hadn’t had all that support, there was a big possibility that he wouldn’t have survived and that would be awful.

“The impact on the community would be huge, we are constantly changing lives every day – it’s not just the cyclists, it’s the volunteers.

“There have been a lot of people with anxiety and mental health issues this year. It’s part of what we do, people have had some serious problems during the year.



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Get back in the saddle



Olivia Healing and Dougal by the hay vapors
Olivia Healing and Dougal by the hay vapors

Penniwells reopened over Easter, and it really was a lifeline for everyone involved.

Sarah said: “It was quite emotional coming back. It’s amazing even now to see runners coming back, it never gets old.

“Last week, one of our runners is a little girl in a wheelchair, she didn’t communicate at home.

“She came around the corner, saw Dougal in the yard, she squealed, giggled, reached out to reach for him and his mother broke down in tears because she said we had missed contact.

“When we first reopened, they (the runners) just wanted to take a deep breath, they were just breathing, it wasn’t even about the steering, it was just the contact.

“Horses have this peaceful feeling, everything will be fine with them – horses know just what they need.”



Paula Netley Thomas is a blind horse rider, who has worked at Penniwells for 3 years
Paula Netley Thomas is a blind horsewoman at Penniwells

Paula netley thomas is a blind rider, who has worked with Penniwells for three years and has reached the level of national competition.

She said: “You can’t really explain this place, it’s the only place where I have complete independence, so I don’t use my cane or my guide dog, I know where everything is and I really don’t understand this It’s like home.

“The lockdown was particularly difficult because there was no opportunity to have that feeling out there, I just don’t have it elsewhere.

“It’s great to be back, it was so emotional, I’ve never experienced anything before.

“It was like that open, happy heart, everything poured in, I knew I missed it but it wasn’t until I got to the door where it was like woosh.

“It wasn’t just me, it was the volunteers, it was the runners and the staff, I think we all experienced it.

“The ponies were delighted to see us, I think the whole sensory explosion, which neither of us expected, was magical.”

How can you help



Penniwells Staff Lauren Beswick and Tayto
Penniwells Staff Lauren Beswick and Tayto

As the yard begins to operate at full capacity, the Penniwells team is desperate for new volunteers, and you don’t have to be a horse expert to get involved.

Whether it’s maintaining the grounds, fixing the equipment, if you really want to help disabled people or if you just love horses, there is a place for you at the stables.

Trix said: “Sometimes we think we are there for the volunteers as well as the runners and at all levels a lot of people have disabilities that are not apparent.

“We try to support people, that’s really who we are, if it’s our families, we grow up with them, we try to never say no to help people and we always need help.”

Even if you are a real novice, there is a complete initiation and training.



Volunteer Laura, Robyn and Stacey with Bertie
Volunteer Laura, Robyn and Stacey with Bertie

Newcomer Laura Homes said: “I worked in a saddlery years ago and people from Penniwells were coming in so I knew that and I live in Bushey so it’s really close by.

“I love it, everyone is really nice. I really enjoyed being with everyone and meeting a lot of new people, it’s nice to work with the horses again.

“I would say give it a try. It’s a lot of fun and everyone is really helpful, so give it a try.”

Staff member Lauren Beswick moved her life from Birmingham to work at Penniwells.

She said: “I always wanted to get into RDA but never really knew how to do it, so I went for three years training in a different yard and got my bus qualifications, then I saw a job arrive here and that’s it

“I much prefer it, I think people are nicer, everyone gets along and helps each other more than usual, it’s just a nice place.

“We have our regular classes, but we teach everyone, it’s just great to know them and see their progress from my debut four years ago until now. “

The charity continues to fundraise in any way it can, so if you want to help or register as a volunteer, click here.

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