‘Volunteers needed’ read the sign that caught Jo Grove’s attention in 2016. It was by Goulburn’s Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), a group that provides therapeutic and recreational classes for children living with disabilities.
“I researched the group and discovered what a unique service it is to the community,” says Jo. “I thought I’d like to give volunteering a go because I think you should give back to the community at some point in life.”
Jo was riding horses on her grandparents’ block in Eastgrove, Goulburn, before her feet could reach the stirrups.
“I was a self-taught rider and instantly felt a connection to horses,” she says. “From memory, my parents bought my first pony to keep me occupied as I was a very active child. I furthered my horse riding endeavours in later years and enjoyed many successful years of endurance riding.”
After seeing the sign, Jo signed up as a volunteer with the RDA. Shortly after, she decided to do the two-year training to become an accredited RDA coach, which meant she could run the local group.
“It’s a lot of work for a voluntary job, but it’s worth it,” she says.
Five years on, Jo has been recognised as the Goulburn electorate’s 2020 Local Woman of the Year for her hard work and dedication to the community through RDA.
As a coach, she is responsible for assessing riders, planning lessons and overseeing the volunteers who she credits the award to. She is also currently training two assistant coaches.
“When I look at the award, I don’t just think of myself,” she says. “I accept it on behalf of the volunteers because I simply could not get the job done without them as leaders, side walkers and horse care managers. I often say they are the ones who make me look good.”
Horse riding helps people with disabilities with coordination, balance, spatial awareness, muscular development and fitness. It also helps with their confidence, communication skills, leadership and trust.
RDA in Goulburn supports a wide range of disabilities, from children living with challenging behaviour to children who are wheelchair-bound but can ride a horse with the aid of two side walkers.
“I really love what I do, helping people living with disabilities achieve personal goals and teaching people skills via horseback that are beneficial in everyday life,” says Jo. “It is so much more than just riding a horse.”
She aims to make each class fun, with riders often involved in games such as throwing rice sacks from the horse into hoops on the ground, which helps with fine motor skills.
“It helps to distract the children from the learning that translates to them writing their name or holding a spoon outside of the lesson,” says Jo.
“The horses make sure there’s never a dull moment, too. We have a horse that talks to the children every time they dismount, and a Welsh pony that loves to run off with the rice sacks in its mouth. The kids think it’s hilarious.”
It’s not just the riders who benefit from the classes, either. According to Jo, the volunteers are able to find a sense of inclusion and satisfaction through the group while many of the horses are given a new lease of life.
“We get a lot of older horses that have had their careers ended, but we are able to give them a purpose,” she says. “The horses love what they do. They are always eager to get up to the arena.”
Jo discovered she was nominated for 2020 Local Woman of the Year at a meeting she believed was about finding a new home for RDA in Goulburn with Member for Goulburn Wendy Tuckerman.
The group has been working with Goulburn Mulwaree Council to find a new location for the past three-and-a-half years.
Since 2000, RDA in Goulburn has operated out of the Rosemont Horse Complex on a free lease arrangement. However, the group wants to find another location in case owner Kath Cole decides to sell or use the space for another purpose.
The group recently expressed an interest in using the council’s former irrigation farm on Gorman Road and will soon find out if it has been successful. If so, RDA and the Goulburn Campdraft Association plan to build a multi-purpose equine facility on the land.
“The facility will be able to house both associations with the potential to hire out each association’s facilities to other equine groups in the local community,” says Jo.
The community can nominate other inspiring local women for the 2021 NSW Women of the Year Awards.
The 2021 award categories include The Premier’s Award for Woman of the Year; NSW Woman of Excellence; NSW Community Hero; NSW Young Woman of the Year; NSW Regional Woman of the Year; NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year; and NSW One to Watch Award.