'Side walkers' guide disabled riders

For those who like interacting with horses, but also want to give back, volunteering with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) Singapore might just be the thing for you.

Ask Miss Alicia Loh, who has been volunteering since 2009.

"In school, I thought many of the projects, such as flag day, were rather meaningless because I didn't get to see the people I was helping," she says. "After searching online for horse-related activities, I came across RDA."

The charity provides free riding lessons for individuals with disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy to autism.

A session includes practical instruction on proper riding techniques, which is intended to improve the posture and musculature of the riders.

They will also play simple games on horseback conducted by the volunteers to build self-confidence.

RDA partners with special needs schools and parents to help the disabled through these activities, which are known as hippotherapy.

"RDA lets me help directly, so I found it a more meaningful way to fulfil my Community Involvement Programme requirements," says Miss Loh.

Anyone above the age of 16 can sign up to be a volunteer with RDA. Most volunteers play the role of a "side walker", guiding and assisting the disabled rider.

More experienced volunteers can also have the opportunity to lead the horses during the 45-minute sessions.

No prior experience with horses is necessary, and volunteers will be given on-the-job training.

Although the degree of commitment required is flexible, RDA spokesman Andrew Liu was quick to stress that volunteering should not be undertaken frivolously.

"The side walkers are responsible for encouraging the riders and looking out for their safety," he says.

"They have the most important role to play in the therapy sessions."

Mr Liu added that while there is a lot of fun involved, RDA is not a place for, well, horsing around.

"The last thing we want is for members of the public to think that this is a petting zoo," he says.