Cheltenham Racecourse volunteered 20+ staff to help out at Cotswold Riding for the Disabled over the course of three days as part of their commitment to Racing Together Community Day. Manager Claire Jenkins explains the value in this relationship and ambitious plans for the centre.
Motivated by wanting to play with ponies!
I have been lucky enough to have worked for, or with, Cheltenham Racecourse for the past 26 years. I started as a sales manager for non-raceday events for the caterers – then known as Letheby and Christopher – and moved after a career break into working in the staffing department working with over 2,500 casual catering staff. I started volunteering with Cotswold RDA seven years ago – selfishly motivated by wanting some time playing with the ponies!
I was not prepared for the absolute transformation that riding and spending time with our ponies makes to our disabled adults and children. I honestly thought that RDA was just kids having fun. The difference that it makes to our riders is often life-changing. The improvements we see on a daily basis to confidence, communication, relationship-building, as well as the expected horsemanship and physical improvements are felt not just during the sessions but at home, school and out in the wider community.
Our youngest rider is just three-years old and our oldest rider is 78 years young. The power of spending time with our ponies is demonstrated by our new Tea with a Pony sessions for people living with dementia and other disabilities, which now take place most days at the arena.
Important links with Cheltenham Racecourse
Our arena is situated in the heart of Cheltenham Racecourse, close to the where the horses turn for home straight and finish, and adjacent to the groundstaff barn. The racecourse supports us is so many ways – not least a peppercorn rent of a £1 per year, which we have never paid! The whole team – groundstaff, caterers and facilities team is always willing to help us with cutting our grass, helping refit out kitchen facilities, DIY jobs – the list is endless.
We are lucky enough to have the bucket collection on Gold Cup day itself and on New Year’s Day, which generates over £15,000 in much needed funds. We have a country stall on a race day where we can sell our Christmas cards but also to promote volunteering to the racegoers.
A massive volunteering effort, week-in, week-out
Every week we are supported by over 200 volunteers and without them we would not be able to run! Some of our riders need up to three people to support them in their activities. Volunteering is another way that RDA makes a difference out in the community and to the individuals. Some of our volunteers have volunteered with us for several decades and are part of a community, learning new skills and feeling valued. RDAUK also has just completed a very interesting report on volunteering which can be read here: https://www.rda.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/RDA-A4-Booklet-V1.3.pdf
The Cheltenham team came and spent time with us on Racing Together Community Day and really got stuck in! Some helped with the lessons; others poo-picked in our paddocks; fixed a broken gutter and another served Tea with a Pony. The volunteers really did enjoy their time with us and we have had a few come before work to help to catch ponies and they have taken a later lunch break to help with a lesson as well!
Racing Together Community Day has been a great springboard
Cheltenham knew a little about what we did but now they have a deeper understanding. They are very keen to get more involved with Cotswold RDA on a daily basis. There are over 500 RDA groups throughout the country and RDA is another way to use horses for useful positive outcomes and is a very good fit for the racing industry nationally.
Plenty of activity plans
We are very excited to have five riders that recently qualified for the National Championships, which will be held in Hartpury July 12-14. We are hopeful for another selection of rosettes to be won.
We are continuing to expand our offering with Family Taster Days, which involve a disabled child coming with siblings, parents and grandparents to spend a day here. They will learn about the care of our ponies; grooming; watching the farrier at work and then finishing the day with a treasure hunt and a picnic in our sensory walk. Meeting other families in a similar situation can help to build supportive friendships while experiencing time with our very special ponies against the backdrop of the very beautiful Cheltenham racecourse. What could be better.