Riding for the Disabled: The little known charity helping disabled kids harness their potential

Tucked away in a residential part of central Auckland, there's a pony club hosting an activity hailed as "life-changing" for its young participants.

It's a Herculean effort run on a shoestring: volunteers assist the children during the rides, while several of the horses and ponies are borrowed from pony club members.

Riding for the Disabled (NZRDA) is the charity of choice for Newshub Live at 6pm presenter Sam Hayes in her bid to be crowned the winner of this year's Dancing With The Stars NZ. For Hayes, horse-riding is a long-held passion.

There are 55 branches of Riding for the Disabled across the country with more than 3000 children taking part, and when Newshub visited the Meadowbank group, there were three bright young children ready to ride.

Eight-year-old Isla is autistic and adores pink and purple, dressing accordingly in a vivid 'AWESOME' shirt with her own purple riding helmet.

Her best friend is Samantha, or Sammy, a 10-year-old with cerebellar atrophy who is non-verbal and uses a wheelchair - but that doesn't stop her from riding in the slightest.

Seven-year-old Pippa, with spina bifida, completes the trio, enthusiastically teaching dancer Aaron Gilmore about how to tell a horse's mood and encouraging him to pat the friendly Jaffa.

They're just some of the kids who reap the rewards of Hayes' hard efforts on DWTS NZ - and chairperson Sarah Haydon said NZRDA is benefiting from more than just the fundraising.

RDA rider Isla rides on her horse, Popeye.
RDA rider Isla on her horse, Popeye. Photo credit: Newshub.

"It's a fabulous cause, but it's one that a lot of people just don't know about," she said.

"And I think when people see what we do, they can see that we really do change people's lives for the better."

Adele Carran, Sammy's mother, hailed RDA as "life-changing" for her young daughter.

"She looks forward to riding every Thursday," she said.

"She's got very few actual signs that she can do, but she's got the sign for 'riding' and she's made up a sign for the pony that she rides.

"The volunteers are just amazing and how they support us and our family, we feel like we're wrapped up in this gorgeous big hug of love from them."

With volunteers braced either side of the horses, the girls were put through their paces. Walking and trotting around the sandy arena, halting and restarting, the physical exercise saw each of the trio light up.

During one exercise, each girl plucks a soft-toy flower from a cone. During another, they stretch to touch their nose and leg at the same time. Each exercise engages a different set of muscles, all the while maintaining balance on their mount. It's a form of physiotherapy taking place in the fresh air.

RDA rider Sammy mounts her horse with the assistance of volunteers.
RDA rider Sammy mounts her horse with the assistance of volunteers. Photo credit: Newshub.

Watching Sammy ride out was an especially moving experience for Gilmore, a dancer for more than 30 years, after he chatted with her and her family as the girls began mounting up.

"When I came this morning, I was thinking about it more just as the experience of the kids getting to ride horses," he said.

"But just seeing what it does to them, the life it injects into their bodies is... wow. This is a cool cause."

While Gilmore admits to no horse knowledge or riding experience - learning how to pat a pony from young Pippa on the day - it's the opposite for Hayes.

Growing up in Milton, South Otago, Hayes first rode a horse aged six and knows how valuable the bond between a pony and its rider can be.

"We've seen today kids that are in a wheelchair, be able to get out of that wheelchair and get onto a horse, and have that mobility, a huge smile on their face, and just have the time of their lives," she said.  

"What RDA does is just entirely unique. It's a brilliant way to really help people who have intellectual or physical disabilities... You only have to look around and see how happy they are doing it, to see how good it is and what a positive impact it's had on their lives."

It's part of why she signed up for DWTS NZ, to be able to raise awareness and money for a cause close to her heart. Those who work with RDA and the families who see their children blossom in the arena are pretty pleased that she did.

Newshub Live at 6pm presenter Sam Hayes and RDA rider Pippa.
Newshub Live at 6pm presenter Sam Hayes and RDA rider Pippa. Photo credit: Newshub.

"It's going to show people all around New Zealand the huge benefit that Riding for the Disabled gives children all around New Zealand of all disabilities, it's quite life-changing for the children and their families," Ms Carran said.

Board member Fiona Wilson said the children have "exceptional changes" week by week.

"From communication to absolute sheer enjoyment of just being on a horse, we love what we're seeing."

And they've managed to enlist another helping hand.

"I think what RDA does is just so incredible. Once I'm not dance training every day I think I'm going to have to be here helping out, I'll see if they can sign me up as a volunteer," Hayes said.

"I can't think of anything better to do than to work with these kids every week and work with horses as well - it's two things that I'd absolutely love to do combined into one."

Viewers can help keep their favourite dancer in the competition by texting their first name to 3333 - each text costs 99c and net proceeds go to that star's chosen charity.

DWTS NZ airs Sundays 7pm and Mondays 7:30pm on Three, and all episodes can be viewed again on ThreeNow.