The Kiwi invention changing disabled horse riders' lives

The Wellington designer of a new therapeutic horse saddle for disabled riders is thrilled to be creating something that can make a difference.

Holly Wright was recently crowned the national winner of the prestigious James Dyson design award for the Contak saddle, now in the running for the award's international competition.

"I think that's what design should be - design things to help people, make their lives just a little bit easier," she told Newshub.

"To help those people who are really deserving, that's just great."

She volunteered with her local Riding for the Disabled (NZRDA) branch while developing the saddle during her honours year. The charity works with disabled people across the country to provide therapeutic horse riding.

"It improves young people's self esteem, it gives them confidence, in a lot of cases it improves their physical wellbeing and gives them strength," NZRDA chief executive Chris Hooper told Newshub.

"But probably more than anything else, the interaction with the horse enables them to achieve incredible things."

But one of the challenges faced by NZRDA riders is that none of the gear is specifically designed for disabled riders. A number of riders have cerebral palsy or other physical disabilities.

Designer Holly Wright stands beside a horse, which is wearing her award-winning saddle.
Designer Holly Wright and her award-winning saddle. Photo credit: Massey University / Supplied

"A lot of their equipment is adapted to suit what they needed, but it is regular able-bodied equipment," Ms Wright said.

Ms Wright said her saddle brings riders closer to their horses, not just helping transfer heat but connecting the two emotionally. It also includes a handle for the volunteer side walkers.

"It was really rewarding seeing that saddle working in the setting that I hoped it would work in," she said of the first time they tested a prototype.

"We had a little rider and a whole bunch of volunteers there, who were all really excited to see it being used. They were involved in the whole [design] process along with my tutors at uni."

Each rider usually has multiple people walking alongside them for safety and Mr Hooper said the new design could mean fewer volunteers need to be there as support.

"It's a fantastic piece of work and the saddle has all sorts of really interesting potential for our riders and for our volunteers," he said.

"It creates a better therapeutic experience for our riders... It brings the rider closer to the horse and gives them a safer and more stable connection."

Ms Wright is only the second woman to win the Dyson award in its 18-year history, after fellow Massey University graduate and friend Nicole Austin won last year.

"I was kind of speechless, I didn't really know what to think! You always think that you could [win] but you're against a lot of talented young designers in New Zealand," she said.

"It's pretty cool to get yourself out there representing young female designers."

The prize money will be used to develop more prototypes and test them out with the local NZRDA - something Mr Hooper said they're already getting questions about across the country.

Ms Wright hopes to start selling the specialised saddles within the next 12 months.

"There'll be a few [prototypes] being tested and trialled more intensively, see how they respond to being used every day instead of just once," she said.

"It's gained a lot of interest both nationally and internationally... I'm very excited."

After winning the New Zealand James Dyson award, Ms Wright is now up as a finalist for the international competition.