“I was a horse mad kid, and it was an opportunity for my mum and I to get involved,” Nicole says. “I learnt a lot of skills through great mentors and other volunteers at the centre, and that was really invaluable.” Now, over thirty years later, she’s the Head Coach at RDA Tall Timbers Centre in the Gables.
“It was an opportunity not to be missed – there’s a reason you get offered opportunities to do things,” Nicole adds. So you might as well jump at it and see where it goes.”
The Riding for the Disabled Association NSW was founded in 1972 by Pearl Batchelor OAM after she visited the RDA in England in the early 1970s. The first lessons were held at Pearl’s Tall Timbers property, originally in West Pennant Hills, where the first participants in the program came from Northcott Society and Crowle Home.
Since then, there have been many changes at the Tall Timbers Centre, including two changes of location to Kellyville in 1976, and to the current Gables site in 1999. Now located near the border of the Hills Shire and Hawkesbury Council areas, participants come to RDA from all over both regions and beyond.
“We’ve seen massive changes in the way centres need to operate these days,” Nicole says. “At the core we are a volunteer organisation, but volunteering is changing, and we need to connect with the community and make sure we’ve got the right opportunities for people to volunteer. But we do the same work; we’re still doing programs, we’re still teaching people, and we’re still offering opportunities for them to engage and participate.”
For Nicole, there’s no such thing as a ‘typical day’ at Tall Timbers. “Our role as coaches is to facilitate programs and manage our volunteers and organise the horses. It’s very much about what sessions are on any given day, what we need to make the sessions happen and communicating with everyone what we need.”
Each individual who visits the Tall Timbers Centre has an individual program organised for them, each including horse-related activities designed to be engaging, therapeutic and fun. “Participants are able to learn skills on the ground working with horses that will translate back into life or work skills,” Nicole explains. “We also have individual and group writing programs, a consultative learning program and a mental health program as well.”
Not only are the programs hand-picked for each participant; the horses are too. “All the horses have their own story, their own likes and dislikes – we treat them as individuals because you need to,” Nicole says. “We match our riders with our horses, and we match our horses with our volunteers to make sure it’s a happy combination.”
The two horses starring on our cover, Cloud and LJ, are examples of the two kinds of horses at Tall Timbers. “Cloud is quite new to the program, she’s only been here since January of this year,” says Nicole. “We’ve worked out what her individual likes are, and she’s been awesome. And LJ has been here for much longer – he’s been a great RDA horse as well, especially with riders that need to develop leg strength and need encouragement sometimes.”
That connection with the horses and the use of riding as a therapeutic activity has seen many success stories come out of the RDA Tall Timbers Centre. From young people whose favourite time of the week is with their horse to the adults with acquired disabilities who have needed a reason to do an activity outside of their home, RDA participants can enrol for any number of reasons and find themselves enriched.
Nicole recalls one particularly touching story: “We’ve had a participant that had their first words on the program. We had a parent come one day to watch their child ride in a school program, and they said ‘I don’t hear him talk at home.’ And to us, we thought ‘Oh my gosh, he talks to us no worries!’
Everyone has a reason for being here and needs to be here. Seeing them transition, it’s really rewarding. We love seeing the participants thrive in this environment, and that’s the role of the organisation; it’s why we love it.”
RDA Tall Timbers Centre is funded by donations and fundraisers. Upcoming events from the Centre include their Charity Race Day at Hawkesbury Race Club on the 8th of October, which will support five other RDA centres, as well as Bunnings BBQs on the 23rd and 24th of September.
Make a donation or find out how you can get involved with the Tall Timbers Centre at https://rdanswtalltimbers.org.au and keep up to date with the latest events at https://www.facebook.com/RDATallTimbers.