A Riding for the Disabled (RDA) group that launched afternoon tea with ponies for people living with dementia are rolling out the programme UK-wide after seeing the “power” of the moving sessions.
Cotswold RDA launched the Tea with a Pony sessions in 2018 and had delivered almost 400 sessions before the pandemic. The sessions involve residents from care homes or individuals, who are living with dementia, attending the centre’s base at Cheltenham racecourse with family members to enjoy tea and cake with some of the charity’s ponies, while watching a riding lesson and spending time in the group’s sensory walk.
Claire Jenkins, Cotswold RDA general manager, told H&H the sessions have been a way to give family members an opportunity to share special memories with their loved ones.
“The very first session took place while a childrens’ group lesson was taking place so the care home residents and the children were waving to each other and you had that intergenerational activity, they really connected,” she said.
“The stories that have come from these sessions have been incredible, we had one resident whose father and grandfather had raced at Cheltenham as amateur jockeys; the resident went straight back to the excitement of that day. It’s using that pony connection – it’s so sensory; it’s the smell, the touch, the leather, all of it.”
Claire said she had been moved to tears many times from some of the stories and memories that have come out of the sessions.
“We had a 103-year-old who had lived in London during World War II. After meeting the pony she started sharing stories from her childhood about living through the Blitz, having to relocate to Gloucestershire and meeting ponies for the first time,” she said.
“Dementia for family members is so hard. Someone described dementia to me as, ‘it’s like a rhino hitting a bookcase – all of your experiences are on that bookcase and sometimes things fall off so you lose that memory’, but because ponies are so deeply entrenched it gives the opportunity to reach that person. That’s the power of it.”
Claire added research has been conducted by Hartpury University to measure the impacts of the sessions and a working party that has been formed by RDA UK to roll out the Tea with a Pony to other RDA groups this summer.
“We are preparing a guide that will be ready in April based on our experience and hopefully it will help other RDA groups round the country to learn from our experience and start it. We are very hopeful that a lot of RDA groups will pick this up. It doesn’t have to be with dementia, it could be translated for other disabilities as we come out of Covid,” she said.
“I believe very strongly that RDA has an opportunity to support so many people. I know from my riders, some who have been shielding, they’re nervous about going back out into the world after Covid, and this is an opportunity for people to spend time outside with a pony, with a cup of tea and a piece of cake. It’s a very gentle way of getting back out into the community.”
Claire said it had been a “privilege” to facilitate the sessions and added the group could not offer what it does if it without the support of Cheltenham racecourse, where the group has been based for more than 40 years.
“Cheltenham racecourse is incredible,” she said. “We are gutted the Festival is behind closed doors because the racecourse allows us to have bucket collections on Gold Cup day, and also New Year’s Day, these days can generate close to £20,000 for us. Racegoers really support RDA, they recognise it is a different way to use horses and are incredibly generous.
“The Cheltenham team also fix things for us and support us so well. We work with 225 disabled adults and children, with more than 200 volunteers, and without the support of the racecourse we couldn’t afford to do what we do.”