Chariots of Fire: where disabled people can take the reins of independence

John and his horse, Otto

It’s borrowed the name of a famous film, and the work it does involves tales of stirring human achievement worthy of the original.

Chariots of Fire, an equestrian yard near Lockerbie, offers people with disabilities, especially children, the opportunity to learn how to drive a horse and carriage, as well as ride.

Trainer John Nisbet competes in driving events himself, either with his Arabo-friesian stallion, Anton, or his gelding, Otto, and has won numerous championships, but his passion is getting children holding the reins of the 50 horses.

At a typical event, competitors drive their horses through patterns requiring specific movements like circles, figure-eights, and reversing; they tackle obstacle courses, even removing washing off a line; and they gain points for speed.

He is full of success stories; for example, talking about a girl who has cerebral palsy but frequently wins driving competitions with a pony.  Chariots of Fire drivers not only compete against each other; they can, if they develop their skills, compete against able-bodied drivers.

“It’s one of the few sports where disabled drivers can compete on an equal footing with able-bodied people,” John says.

He also cites a boy who had stopped attending school; he was out of control and throwing tantrums.  “Now he’s back in school, and competing successfully.”

A girl with cerebral palsy called Jessica rode and drove from Dumfries to the yard in Boreland, a distance of 30 miles, in two days.  It was a sponsored ride and drive, raising money for cancer research in memory of Amanda Saville, John’s wife and fellow trainer, who died of cancer in February this year.

Jessica rode for four miles, then drove for five, and rode again for four on each day, an amazing achievement for a girl whose parents were once told she would never walk.

Her mother Angela, on the webpage for Jessica’s sponsored ride and drive, says that carriage driving helped Jessica develop the confidence, strength and co-ordination to walk when doctors did not think it would be possible.

So what kinds of disabilities does the yard primarily work with? John says: “Everything. Asperger’s, autism, cerebral palsy, Down’s.  We’re looking outside the box, and pushing the boundaries, and we’re willing to try to find ways of getting anyone into a carriage.”

John and Amanda, both competitive drivers, were originally interested in working with people who had disabilities.  Amanda had trained in an equine assisted therapy programme, and John says she was brilliant at relating to children, particularly ones who had behavioural problems or disabilities.

Their interest in making driving accessible to disabled individuals came to fruition eight years ago when the chief veterinarian for Cumbria went to the farm for driving lessons.  He had MS and could no longer sail, but he found he could drive.  “Then it got to a point where he came in a wheelchair and couldn’t get in a carriage,” John recalls.

Instead of giving up, that’s where the out-of-the-box thinking that epitomises the yard’s approach came into play.

“We spoke to the carriage manufacturers, Bennington,” John says.  Together, they developed a carriage called the Bennington Fun Bug, a four-wheeled buggy which you can roll a wheelchair on to, and has numerous other adaptations for disabled drivers.

horse2These include removable handrails, extra seats for parents or carers, and improved suspension.  The Fun Bugs also have two driving seats.  “We have dual reins, like dual controls on a car,” John says.  That way, the instructor can always take control in an emergency, but, as John says, “We’re not there to do the driving for them.  It’s their achievement.”

This set-up gives even seriously disabled drivers the opportunities to do more with the horse than would be achievable in a disabled riding programme.

There, the riders can only go as fast as the person on the ground, leading the horse, which for most people is not more than a trot.  Whereas a driver and instructor in a carriage can walk, trot, canter, and gallop on the first day, if they want.

Driving encourages children to speak, since the voice is the main aid for the horse, and to use their energy levels to control it.  “It makes them self-reflect,” John says, when discussing youngsters who had come to Chariots of Fire with behaviour problems. For physical disabilities, it builds strength and coordination.

John and the team at the farm are continuing Amanda’s legacy. The farm was recently incorporated as a community interest company, which expands their opportunities for funding, and John envisages developing its facilities.  “I’d love to make it a supercentre for the disabled, and open it to the community.”

Already, Chariots of Fire is making a major impact.  People come to it from as far away as Newcastle, and they have visitors from places such as Spain and Israel, wanting to create disabled driving centres in their countries.

More information on their website

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