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Rheegan's Story

Regular therapeutic riding sessions at Henderson Group RDA are helping improve the quality of life for Rheegan and her family.

Rheegan – or Rhee as she is known – is an 8 year old girl who lives with Severe Autism, which (amongst other things) greatly affects her ability to communicate, socialise and interact with others.  She is also extremely phobic of dogs, fearful of cats and generally disinterested in all other animals.

Rheegan’s mother Devora first heard about Riding for the Disabled a few years ago, when a kindergarten psychologist mentioned the organisation to her for her daughter.  Following this, the special school that Rhee attended put her name forward to be part of the therapeutic riding programme at Henderson Group RDA.

The family was optimistic and excited to give RDA a try, so in 2013 seven-year-old Rheegan began her riding sessions at the Henderson Group RDA arena.  Devora says that the sessions at RDA started slowly, beginning with a ‘gentle’ introduction for Rheegan to the arena.

“It was very important to do things on Rhee’s timescale, so we started slowly with Rhee sitting at the arena wearing one of the riding helmets, then progressing to watching a Horse in the arena in subsequent sessions.”

Eventually the team worked Rhee up to touching one of the RDA Horses, before making a breakthrough in the sixth session when Rhee rode on the back of a Horse for the first time.

Devora is indebted to Henderson Group RDA for their patience and understanding throughout the initial process.

“Perseverance was key as it took Rhee a while to get used to the new environment.  The Volunteers and staff at Henderson RDA never tried to push Rhee into doing anything that she didn’t want to do, instead letting her soak in everything - the sights, smells and sensations - in her own time.”

The riding sessions also introduced Rhee to RDA Horse ‘Kai’, who quickly became a key part of Rhee’s life and the trusted friend that Devora says she desperately craved.

“I have never witnessed my daughter as excited about any activity ever.  She says, ’My Kai, my Kai kind’, which was shocking as my husband and I didn’t even know she knew the word ‘kind’.

A Horse doesn’t judge, Kai accept hers as she is and vice versa.  He is her friend.”

Subsequent RDA sessions with Kai helped Rheegan to develop her communication and socialising skills, as her vocabulary was very limited.  This had an immense impact on Devora and the family.

“Kai was one of the first names she spoke outside of her family.  It was also the first time she had communicated that something – in this case her riding sessions at RDA – made her happy. “

Devora talks about the relationship that was able to be built between Rhee and her grandmother.

“Rhee takes her Grandma by the hand when she visits our house, walks her to photo we have on the wall of Kai, points and says, ‘Rhee Rhee happy, My Kai happy’.

Granny is often moved to tears, as she never before knew how to have such an intimate conversation with her beloved granddaughter.  Horseback riding has been a platform that has bridged the silence between them.”

Fast forward to 2014, and eight year old Rheegan has now been riding at every Tuesday riding session for the past four terms.

Beyond the obvious benefits, RDA has given other people a knowledge that Rheegan can make decisions, and because of this it has become easier for her to establish relationships with people.

Devora says that RDA has given her daughter the much-needed energy release, physicality and engagement that she craves, making her more relaxed and providing a level of freedom and hope – an activity that could be hers.

“RDA has not just been tolerant, they are been welcoming and a lifeline for us. 

This is so important as Rheegan is severely disabled; in fact too disabled and ‘outside the mainstream’ to interact in most places in NZ.  There are few places where we can go and be accepted, even tolerated, especially by other parents who don’t understand or accept Rhee’s behaviour.

I hope that every mother can feel as blessed as I do, that my sweet angel has something that makes her feel so complete.”

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