10 years ago...

The first time I met Jane Barker - which was in the lounge of her home in a little village near Baschurch, North Shropshire - I soon realised this was no ordinary sports enthusiast. Jane was so passionate about the physical and mental wellbeing benefits of people with a disability spending time around horses she had basically turned her home into a Riding Centre for the Disabled. Of course she didn’t do it on her own – Jane has an army of people who she has enthused to help and volunteer with her over the years.  Jane was and is no fool but everyone knows Perry RDA is Jane Barker.

The other thing I realised during this initial meet was just how important the work of Perry RDA is providing a range of equine related disciplines for children and adults with some of the most profound disabilities.  Jane explained that she had a long waiting list for many of the activities and that her modest stables and yard were struggling to cope.  I also knew, from what was then the new Active People Survey that Shropshire had one of the lowest sports participation and activity levels in the whole of the country in terms of people with a disability.  People with a disability are half as likely to be active when compared to their non-disabled counterparts and in Shropshire this is even more pronounced which can only lead to more problems with social isolation and mental health issues. 

Anyway back to the story - about 10 years ago in Jane’s lounge where she explained what Perry RDA do and basically that she ran the group from her stables, her yard and her paddock.  Jane was and is a passionate lady when it comes to horses – she quite literally loves them and the sense of companionship and feeling of natural joy that they can offer.  She would freely admit she is not a business lady – Perry were (at the time) a small constituted group – registered with the national RDA – they had committee members but they were not really in a position to own and manage their own facility.  Also Jane didn’t really have any other potential sites nor anything like the £1million to £2million which would probably be required to build this new facility. And her biggest concern was not that she wanted her land back but that when she no longer walked this mortal coil it would fold. Wow - that’s some introduction to a project.

The other issue which Perry RDA and Jane had was that Perry weren’t and aren’t the only RDA in Shropshire – there were various others who, before RDA UK could get behind the project and support, needed persuading that Perry RDA establishing new much bigger facilities and a new operation wouldn’t threaten their activities.  At the opening of the Cavalier Centre I was reminded of a meeting Energize attended very early on in the project with these groups and also RDA UK Chief Exec.  He described how important and helpful it was having Energize at that meeting to provide a knowledgeable and interested but otherwise neutral and independent perspective.  The other RDA’s were persuaded that a stronger new Perry RDA could actually be beneficial for them – offering training and partnering support for their instructors as well as extra capacity and different disciplines so that Shropshire RDA would be stronger as a group.  Which they have become.

Of course at those early meetings we mapped out what was needed - a new governance status, a venue and funding to develop the facilities.  It seems easy and straightforward to write it here but I think we explained that this was no straightforward or simple task Jane was taking on.  But like I say Jane was not daunted and we helped her to connect with a national charity called Sported who provide sports business support via local volunteer mentors.  This 12 month support was crucial in developing the strategy and good governance practice and we also discussed the need to reach out for support – to communicate the need for the project and to get others on board.


Over the last few years...

And so it has continued over the last ten years – we have met fairly regularly along the way – and there have been some serious setbacks and false dawns as either venues or funders who have initially promised have not materialised in the end.  But Jane and the movement that has become Perry RDA have not faltered.  During this time Jane has also joined in with lots of local initiatives and always gives her time freely and enthusiastically to promote inclusive sporting opportunities in the area.

Funding has always been the thing that Energize could advise Perry RDA most about and as well as supporting with various Sport England bids (more of those in a minute) we have undertaken various searches for other funders and proposed and discussed other sources of funding with Jane on numerous occasions.  To the degree that I suggest Jane is now the expert on funding – rather than me!  When I visited the Cavalier Centre on the opening day I noticed that they have produced some nice equine artwork which lists all the individuals and organisations who have financially supported the project.  I would go so far as to say that I don’t know of another project in the country that has explored and reached and been supported by such a varied group.  HRH Princess Royal, who attended the opening and is also the President of RDA, explained that the work Perry RDA had done with this project had created ripples throughout the UK RDA network as it had opened eyes to what is possible for the network.  The support that the project has had from local schools and schoolchildren is worthy of a blog of its own.  In all local children and schools raised over £135,000 by physically challenging themselves to swim the equivalent of the channel in a weekend, climb Ben Nevis, run around the world and more (much, much more) – amazing stuff and all inspired by the work of Perry RDA and the vision for the Cavalier Centre.

Early on of course we had identified Sport England were a potential source of significant financial support – this was pre 2012 and there was a fund which might have offered up to half the funding if there was local match – and support from enough NGB’s.  Jane will say that the introductions and discussions with Sport England were supportive and instructive even though they didn’t immediately result in an actual funding award.  I think it was important that Sport England recognised the potential of the project and hopefully Energize helped them to achieve this with appropriate introductions.  As I say it didn’t immediately result in funding and by the time Jane had the necessary governance and a site on which to build the new centre as well as raised match from other sources 2012 was a distant memory and Sport England had a new funding strategy.  Perry RDA did get funding from Sport England (there won’t be a Sport England strategy in my lifetime that doesn’t support community run facilities and have people with a disability as a priority) but it was at a more modest level rather than in the original plans.  But this didn’t daunt Jane and she went on to raise funds from various other foundation trusts, European funds, lottery and sponsorship / donations to name but a few.


April 2019...

Of course now the Cavalier Centre has been built and opened near Much Wenlock the challenge is to use it to its full potential and to extend those life changing opportunities to both the participants and the volunteers who also get so much from their input.  Did you know that the average volunteer at an RDA centre walks over 2 miles a day whilst volunteering and they report improved mental wellbeing as one of the benefits of getting involved too.  The volunteers I met at Perry RDA were certainly full of enthusiasm and during the display of vaulting you could clearly see the bond they had with the children whose parents and carers also described coming to Parry RDA as the high point of their family week.


It's great to know that Energize have played a small part in this journey and hopefully we can be a part of its future success too but the real message is that Shropshire now has a Riding Centre for the Disabled to be proud of – and it’s something that the local community and children of the area helped to build.  In this world where there seem to be so many challenges and issues it’s great to know that so many have contributed so much to improve lives in such a profound way.