If you are looking for a worthy cause to support, love animals (and how they make such a huge difference in our lives), and would like to be more involved in helping people, RDA Singapore might just be for you.
I’ll let Wanda, an RDA Singapore volunteer, inspire you – and introduce you to the world and value of horse-riding therapy. :)
Horses are amazing animals. But don’t just take my word for it. :)
“The RDA therapy horses have helped people in so many ways, it’s mind-blowing,” says Wanda Wang.
“RDA” stands for Riding for the Disabled Association Singapore – a registered charity that provides free equine-assisted/horse-riding therapy programmes to disabled children and adults in Singapore – of which Wanda is a volunteer.
Excited for the day
So what makes up an equine-assisted therapy session? Wanda walks us through it.
“Usually my role is as an assistant instructor or to lead the horse. Volunteers arrive around 30 minutes before to start preparing and reviewing, and to have a debrief about the upcoming session.”
“The volunteers working directly to assist the beneficiaries – the ‘sidewalkers’ – help set up the arena, and receive the beneficiary when they arrive to build rapport, revise any learning as per their goals, and warm them up before the session.
“The warm-up is crucial not just for the physically disabled who have muscle spasticity, but for those with intellectual disabilities as well, as they may need time to get ready. For some, the social aspect of doing something together as a class is an important achievement. And we haven’t even gotten to riding on the horse yet!”
“Meanwhile, other volunteers will tack up and warm up the therapy horses. Throughout the session, the instructor and assistant instructors will organise and manage things. And when everyone is ready, the instructors will help the riders mount the horses.”
“For the session, each team has a unique plan to help each beneficiary; some volunteers even think of very creative ones to help their rider. One team set up Pokemon Go inside the arena, and used their rider’s interest in the game to work on his motor skills, like steering and handling small cards, and on communication if he wanted to trade his Pokemon.
“Sometimes the class goes for a trail ride into the ‘jungle’ or the neighbouring stable yard – an eye-opening experience for some who would find it hard to traverse a sandy, uneven path because, well, it’s rather impossible to wheel around on sand. So they might not have seen the forest, count the kingfishers or butterflies.
“Some parents find bringing out their disabled child challenging, but safely on a horse’s back and with their sidewalkers, they stay calm and can enjoy themselves.”
“At the end of the session, everyone sits down to review the class using an organised tracker, and discusses how to proceed for the following session. This is also when the instructor can further explain details in-depth and share experiences with volunteers – often with some cake or snacks.”
How horses change lives
To date, over 6,000 disabled children and adults have benefited from RDA Singapore’s equine-assisted therapy. (They were founded in 1982.) And Wanda feels happy and privileged to be a part of it. Here are just some of the cool things she’s witnessed:
“I’ve seen RDA beneficiaries who’ve been able to change physically through riding – like from only being able to lie down on the horse to sitting up to ride independently, or even moving from being a wheelchair user to developing the ability to walk short lengths independently,” she observes.
“For someone unable to walk unaided, see, or who has difficulties communicating, riding a horse gives a feeling of freedom and independence.”
“There are beneficiaries who were able to find a different path. They learn about impulse control, staying calm, communication, focus, self-awareness, feeling a bit better about themselves, and even making friends – like this remarkable story of the bond between an autistic boy, Malcolm, and RDA therapy horse Lukas.”
“I’ve also personally seen more than a few beneficiaries in past therapy programmes come to us non-verbal; but much to their parents’ delight, they start speaking, most commonly beginning with their therapy horse’s name and verbal commands for the horse.”
“How does it work? How are horses able to reach us in this special way? The short version is that horses are magic,” Wanda declares. And it’s not just with the beneficiaries. The therapy horses have transformed Wanda and other volunteers for the better too.
“Horses are able to affect us in unique ways – riding one produces a three-dimensional movement that simulates the same hip motion we make while walking, and provides a warm, comforting, non-judgmental friend.”
“Just being around horses calms you down (it’s been scientifically studied). Other volunteers have also shared with me how volunteering at RDA is like therapy – it has helped them overcome stress or trauma, or inspired them to stay grounded and live a positive life.”
Horses will (continue to) surprise you
You’d think that all this activity, routine and excitement must get to the horses. But they’re actually quite understanding. :)
Wanda, for one, appreciates “their kindness to tolerate us fumbling, overthinking human beings”.
“Horses are herd animals, so it is part of their nature to just get along with those around them, even if we are doing things wrong. As a result, they are willing to try for us, even when it is difficult to carry someone who is moving against them, or even when volunteers are still learning the ropes,” she observes.
“There are a lot of unintentional mistakes we humans make biomechanically, which make it difficult for the horses. But horses understand their job and feel the genuine energy of the people around them – which makes them willing to be patient and carry on for us.”
Think you don’t have what it takes to be an RDA volunteer?
Now it’s your turn to be surprised. Wanda had no experience working with the disabled before she started with RDA Singapore in 2004 – but that didn’t stop her. Now, aside from volunteering in the therapy sessions, she’s also involved in RDA Singapore’s committee and sub-committees, where she helps with events, fundraising and marketing, among others.
“I was just in high school, and my previous volunteer experience was as a counsellor for a camp that teaches the power of the mind and learning techniques,” recalls Wanda, who currently works as a price reporter for the oil commodities market.
“But RDA runs training programmes, and it’s a very supportive community where people help each other. Just be willing to learn.”
You can also donate any amount you can. According to Wanda, a 45-minute session for a beneficiary amounts to S$140 – and RDA Singapore needs around S$1.2 million a year to take care of the centre and the horses.