History of the Avon Riding Centre

The Avon Riding Centre was founded by Stella Saywell, one of the first physiotherapists that were involved in therapeutic riding even before the formation of the Riding for the Disabled Association in 1969. Stella was the Head of Physiotherapy at Winford Orthopaedic Hospital and persuaded her Consultant to adopt the idea of using riding as a way to help in the rehabilitation of some of their patients that had acquired physical disabilities as a result of contracting Polio. Friends brought ponies in to the hospital grounds for a few hours each week.

Stella was able to recognise and demonstrate the benefits to those patients and wanted to offer more opportunities. Children from a local special school soon began riding at Winford and a small indoor arena was built in the grounds of the hospital in 1963. What became the Winford RDA Group continued to operate until the closure of the Hospital in 1996 made it impractical to continue.

Meanwhile Stella had been working towards her aim of getting support for a much larger ‘purpose built’ riding centre to be able to offer the benefits of riding to people of all ages with disabilities in Bristol and the surrounding area. With help and support from Bristol City Council and many in the local business community the Avon Riding Centre for the Disabled finally became a registered charity in 1980 and riding first began in 1983 with the official Opening Ceremony by HRH The Princess Royal, President of the RDA, taking place in October 1984.

In the early days the Centre was used by the Avon and Somerset Mounted Police for the training of both their officers and horses because they had no facilities of their own for training at that time. They had the use of the indoor arena every weekday for two hours from 12pm until 2pm. This brought in some welcome regular income and support.

The majority of the helpers working with the riders were on various government schemes run by the Manpower Services Commission in those early days, including those on Youth Training Schemes. Indeed a lot of the building work was completed using such labour. The first Stable Manager was Mike Ames who had previously been the Lord Mayor’s Coachman.