Washington Riding Centre celebrates its 50th birthday

Nestled in the countryside around Washington is a centre that works miracles every day

Washington Riding Centre Manager Jane Cherry
Washington Riding Centre Manager Jane Cherry

It started with a borrowed pony, one field, one patient, and a lot of hope for the future.

Now, 50 years later, the Washington Riding Centre is situated in its own complex of 40 stables in 15 acres and offers horse riding to 130 disabled children and adults every week.

The centre had its beginnings in 1964 when a doctor and his wife realised the therapeutic benefit of using horses to help vulnerable patients suffering from mental and physical restrictions.

Dr Nathan Strang and his wife Norah founded the Tyne and Wear Group of the Riding for the Disabled Association in South Shields, little knowing just how big it was going to get.

The manager at the present location in Washington is Jane Cherry who lives, sleeps, and breathes horses - and was there at the beginning as a ten-year-old volunteer.

A relaxed smile spreads across her face when she enters one of the many stables with me and gently talks to one of the horses.

He’s Jorge, a five-year-old Clydesdale with a good temperament, and you sense his rapport with Jane.

She said: “It started with a borrowed pony and a single field in 1964, so we are celebrating our 50th birthday.

“Dr Strang was treating a polio sufferer and with the help of his wife launched a group to encourage riding as a form of therapy.

“It just grew from there and now we have 130 disabled riders every week, something is happening every day, and we make a difference to so many people.

“The day starts at 7.30am and does not finish until 8.30p. It’s very much a social thing as well as a medical thing for the people who come here.

“The horses allow riders to forget their worries and improve self-esteem and it’s wonderful to see the difference in riders from their first visit here as they grow in confidence.

“There’s a physical aspect because riding keeps muscles strong and supple.

“And there’s a mental side as well because some riders are not very good at people skills but they can build a relationship with a horse.”

 

Jane, now 50, became involved with the group when she was just ten.

“My dad met Mrs Strang when he was in the Rotary Club and he decided to help her,” Jane said. “I tagged along with him and I have been here ever since.”

Many of the people who use the centre are referred by doctors and social workers for a variety of medical conditions including brain injuries.

They include youngsters with behaviour problems or who simply do not fit in at school and would benefit from learning how to form a working relationship with a horse.

These days the centre takes able-bodied riders to help keep afloat but the emphasis is still on the disabled with a 60-40 ratio.

Katie Williams, 20, attends the centre three times a week and gets a great deal of benefit from riding Zonic, a horse she part-loans, and who looks after her as much as she looks after him.

Katie suffers from a condition which results in a build-up of pressure in the brain.

“It gives the symptoms of having a brain tumour except you don’t have the tumour,” she said.

“Riding means a lot to me because it gives me freedom and the centre is a place to come and forget your normal life.

“I have been coming here for three years and I know I am going to be coming here for the rest of my life.

“It takes a lot of concentration to ride Zonic, he’s a big powerful horse, but between us we manage.

“Horses come up to your level, and you comes down to theirs, and the result is a partnership.

“Zonic is very laid back and a real gentlemen.

“He looks after me and can sense when I am unbalanced and when he needs to adjust the way he walks.

“If a new rider came along he would go slowly and carefully until that person became more confident.”

But there’s a side of Zonic which Katie rarely sees and it sums up the question of who is really in charge.

“It’s not me, it’s Zonic,” says Jane.

“The group of horses we have here is a herd and the head of the herd is Zonic.

“To humans he is a lovely quiet horse, who helps them, who is powerful but understanding, but he is something completely different to the other horses.

“With the other horses he’s the boss and he is always ready to make sure they know it.

“He would violently maintain his position as leader of the herd and has his eight girls to look after”

Katie Williamson, 20 who uses the centre
Katie Williamson, 20 who uses the centre
 

Jane, with her expert eye, knows what horses think.

And if you think understanding humans is hard, working out what is going on in a horse’s head is even more complicated.

Jane said: “Zonic has a best friend called Apollo. We know this because they graze next to each other and snort for each other if one is on the outside and the other in the stables.

“Put one of them out first and the other will wait until the other is ready and they will go off together.

“Horses are good at forming friendships but they are also shallow and if they realise their best friend is not coming back they will quickly go to another horse and say: “You’re my new best friend.’

“Horses are also good at telling you when they are unhappy and we recently had to replace a wall between two stalls because a horse had kicked the hell out of it.”

Jane is able to tell you that Apollo is the sensitive one, Strider is the cheeky one, and Codie is the gentle giant of the herd.

Ed is the graceful one, Jake is the joker, while Rio is the one who tries her best to please and Jade is the frisky one.

The history of the centre has been one of continual growth - some with the help of a children’s TV programme.

In 1975 Blue Peter set out to raise money for the Riding for the Disabled organisation through their Clothes Horse Appeal.

Many groups benefitted and in Tyne and Wear a pony called Rags was bought and trained.

£20,000 was given to the group and what was then known as the Strang Riding Centre was created.

Princess Anne opened the centre in 1977 and at the time it had seven ponies, 12 stables, and an indoor arena.

“The 1980s saw a massive growth mainly due to Manpower Services,” said Jane. “This was a Government incentive to get people back to work and we were given staff free of charge which meant we could really expand.

“Lessons increased, we had 20 ponies, and took 30 lessons a week with anything up to eight in a class

“The 1990s were difficult. Having build up the centre to cater for 250 disabled riders a week the government changed policies and withdrew all staff.

“To make ends meet, for the first time, a charge was introduced and we continued to raise funds to make ends meet.

Centre Manager Jane Cherry
Centre Manager Jane Cherry
 

The new century saw a fundamental change when able-bodied riders were welcomed.

Jane said the advantages include income to subsidise disabled lessons, a new source of volunteers and fund-raisers, and opening the door to funding previously denied because the centre was now catering for all members of the community.

Growth is still on the agenda with a new stable block being built with the help of a £45,000 grant from Sport England.

Jane said: “It will give us a new classroom with wheelchair access which will allow the riders to learn how horses are looked after and groomed in a safe environment.

“It’s not just a case of coming and riding a horse but getting close enough to learn what happens when the horse is in the stables and how they behave.

“Hopefully we will be ready to open it soon and provide yet another experience for our disabled riders.”

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