A little piece of west London where miracles happen

The RDA, Riding for the Disabled Association, celebrates 50 years this year. Supported by some 18,000 qualified coaches and volunteers, the association improves the lives of more than 25,000 disabled children and adults at 500 centres around the country. The nearest to us in Chiswick, and the only riding school specifically for disabled children in west London, is the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre, tucked in behind the prison and Hammersmith hospital. I went for a visit on a busy Saturday and met some of the children and volunteers.

“What they do is just amazing” says Sarah Maude, who runs the café with her husband Rob and whose 17 year old daughter Alexandra helps the children ride. “To see how much the children develop, how they get stronger, it’s lovely to see.” The centre is run by Mary Joy Langdon BEM, who set it up thirty years ago: “There are so many rewards – the hint of a smile on the face of a child who doesn’t normally smile. Little treasures like that as well as the big miracles,” she says.

Image above: Mary Joy Langdon with Athos. Images below: Aiglon; general view of the stable yard; Sarah Maude

‘Miracles’

One of those ‘big miracles’ who I met at the centre was Marianne Kennedy. Now nine, she has been coming to the centre since she was six. She has a chromosomal abnormality know as Phelan McDermid Syndrome which means that every aspect of her development is delayed. As I talked to her mother Janice Gardner, Marianne was pulling on her, almost pulling her over in her enthusiasm to be done with this boring adult conversation and get on a horse. “When we first came she couldn’t walk” says Janice. “When she first sat on a pony she was like a broken doll, with no core strength and very low muscle tone.” The transformation she attributes to riding. “I cried when I first saw her walking” says Romaine Dennistoun, the centre’s resident artist. “I hadn’t been for a few months and I couldn’t believe it was the same child”. Romaine sketches the ponies and children both for her own development as an artist and to raise money for the centre.

Images below: Marianne with her mother Janice; artist in residence Romaine Dennistoun

Fundraising: ‘a constant battle’

They have about 400 children through the doors, not all of them disabled. Specialist schools use the centre during the week and individual children with their parents come on Saturdays. Their running costs amount to about £250,000 a year and what grants they get tend to be of a tiny and ad hoc nature, so fundraising is a constant battle. “We sweat the assets” says Kathy Heaps, Chair of the Trustees “by offering riding lessons at commercial rates.” That brings in about £100,000. The remaining £150,000 is down to fundraising.

Volunteering: ‘I’ve got so much out of it’

Kathy and her friend Alison Drage are both former teachers, Kathy a former Head teacher and Alison an Assistant Head, who have retrained with the RDA as coaches. Each disabled child is accompanied on horseback by someone who leads the horse and two ‘side-walkers’, one on either side. Lessons take place inside an indoor arena and are customized to the individual child’s needs depending on their age, ability and strength. A parent or someone known to the child is also on hand, though as the family gets more used to the centre, they are able to relax and go off to the café for some of Sarah’s excellent home made cakes and a natter with the other parents while the child has their lesson.

Veronica Newson, also a coach, is a marketing executive who got involved after she smashed both her knees in a riding accident. On recovery, she decided to give something back by volunteering. She explained how they help children with different disabilities with aids developed for their specific needs., such as bucket stirrups and saddle pads. She uses different tones of voice and variously coloured reigns for children with auditory and visual problems so they can understand what they need to do to walk or trot.

Images below: Black Beauty; Mimi with Mary Joy; Orlando; Mary Joy with Orlando; Orlando & Athos

“It’s taught me a lot” says Mimi Eleftheriades, who at 14 is a sidewalker. ”I hadn’t been around disabled children before. It’s taught me how to be patient, clear, helpful, how to treat everyone as an individual and how to respond to different situations.” Mimi came to the centre originally to ride herself, but now prefers to come as a helper.

“We have a lot of autistic children” says Mary Joy. Among the horses at the stables are Arabs and Camargues. The Camargue horses in particular are very sensitive. “There’s one boy, who’s about 15 who has grown up here” she says. “If you didn’t know him you might think him rude: he doesn’t talk much, no eye contact. Autistic children have difficulty communicating and in a sense a horse is the same, their communication is non-verbal. The horse doesn’t expect anything of the boy and vice-versa. They use bodily communication.”

The indomitable Mary Joy

Mary Joy grew up around horses. Her parents ran an Arab stud and small riding school in Sussex, so she went straight in to the business of showing and breeding horses when she left school. She also claims the distinction of having been Britain’s first female firefighter. During the severe drought of 1976 she answered the call for firefighters. There were some raised eyebrows, but being fit, strong and practical she passed their tests and joined the East Sussex Fire & Rescue team for a few years.

When she moved to London she had no intention of working with horses, but talent will out and when someone discovered she could ride she was asked to look after three ponies in what was then just a bit of common land. When they were stolen by travellers she went after them with a neighbour, confronted the thieves and got the ponies back. The animals were stabled in the women’s changing rooms of what is now the Linford Christie Stadium for a short while until Mary Joy could work out what to do with them. She got together some volunteers, who knocked up some temporary stables and the riding centre was born.

Images below: Mary Joy with Commissioner of the London Fire Brigade Dany Cotton; Seth with child and parent; Mary Joy

The stables were rebuilt as they now are 25 years ago and need replacing, so on top of the usual fundraising for running costs Mary Joy is now looking to raise an additional £80,000 to replace them this summer. The indoor arena was put together in 1994 by Anneka Rice and volunteers in a ‘Challenge Anneka’ TV show, with all the labour and materials donated.

Mary Joy, who is a nun in the Order of the Infant Jesus sisters, is one of those people who could justifiably be described as a ‘dynamo’, holding several conversations at once, signing volunteers’ time sheets and breaking off to talk to parents as she chats to me. Not far off 70, she has the energy of someone half her age and has her on eye on everything going on in the yard. When she’s finished at the stables she generally spends another two or three hours a day at the computer working on fundraising. She is planning to abseil down the orbital tower at the Olympic Park on 20 April to raise funds for the centre, (though the ‘flying nun’ headline won’t have quite the visual impact it might have, as her order doesn’t wear a habit, and in fact were saved during the French revolution by their practice of wearing mufti). She was ordained as a nun in 1995 and considered working in a parish but decided “it really wasn’t for me”. She prefers to be mucking out horses and enabling children to be the best they can be, for which she was awarded the British Empire Medal by the Queen in December 2017.

Win a walk on part in Doc Martin and support the pony centre

Mary Joy is very persuasive. The actor Martin Clunes, who is himself a horseman and keeps Clydesdales, was asked to present her with an award for her work. Watching a video of what the Wormwood Scrubs Pony Centre had achieved, she noticed he had tears in his eyes. She leant over and whispered ‘would now be a good time to ask you to be our patron?”
What could the poor man say? He is now their patron and is offering a walk-on part in the next series of Doc Martin to the highest bidder, as a contribution to the centre’s funds. Email your bid to Mary Joy at mlangdon30@me.com by 31 March.

Images below: Martin Clunes dancing with children; Smudge the stableyard cat; HRH Princess Anne with Martin Clunes and Kathy Heap behind

The Wormwood Scrubs pony Centre is at Woodmans Mews, Shepherd’s Bush, London W12 0HU
Tel: 07947 816721

www.wormwoodscrubsponycentre.org