Pat lets go of the reins at Mount Group RDA to face life’s biggest battle

Pat Bishop will meet Princess Anne when she steps down as county RDA chairman EMN-161011-111549002
Pat Bishop will meet Princess Anne when she steps down as county RDA chairman EMN-161011-111549002
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“I promised Sue Pettifor just before she died that I would keep the group running and that was in 1995.”

As chairman and trustee of the Mount Group, Pat Bishop has kept this heartfelt pledge for 25 years.

Pat Bishop and fellow RDA volunteer Judy Jennings with the dressage simulator, affectionately known as Robocob EMN-161011-111601002

Pat Bishop and fellow RDA volunteer Judy Jennings with the dressage simulator, affectionately known as Robocob EMN-161011-111601002

The words now, however, carry extra resonance.

They are an uncanny and sad echo to the present; recently Pat made the same pledge to herself.

Last year an appointment at the doctor’s surgery brought stunning news of unimaginable impact.

Pat was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It was incurable.

The Mount Group has 40 volunteers and expects to cater for more than 50 riders per week EMN-161011-111612002

The Mount Group has 40 volunteers and expects to cater for more than 50 riders per week EMN-161011-111612002

The prognosis arrived, as fearful news has a jarring habit of doing, in the run-up to Christmas. She was gently advised to make the most of the upcoming festivities.

But as hundreds of riders, as well as fellow volunteers and friends would tell you, quitting is not in Pat’s script.

“I’m not giving up; I’m too stubborn to do that,” she vowed. “You have to be positive.

“I’m a glass half-full person, not a glass half-empty.”

Pat became like an auntie to Christine Durrance who had not ridden at eight but went on to win World Games gold. EMN-161011-111623002

Pat became like an auntie to Christine Durrance who had not ridden at eight but went on to win World Games gold. EMN-161011-111623002

Yet, as most of us know through personal experience, trouble seldom travels alone.

While coming to terms with her own shattering news, the Mount Group’s future suddenly hung in the balance, too.

They and the leaseholders of their base mutually agreed a parting of the ways was inevitable. A new home had to be found or the club would fold.

For someone in Pat’s shoes, unsure of how much of her own time was left, it would have been easy, and entirely understandable, to let someone else find a solution.

Group organiser Di Poyser and instructor Pippa Owen during the induction day at their new base EMN-161011-111539002

Group organiser Di Poyser and instructor Pippa Owen during the induction day at their new base EMN-161011-111539002

Yet the group’s uncertain future provided a distraction from her own.

While she could no longer control her own destiny, it was at least cathartic that she could do so for her riders and friends.

“In a way it has helped because I’ve been thinking more about the future of the group then I have about myself,” she explained.

“I was worried the group wouldn’t survive. I had to sort that out.”

By early summer, after several months of fret and worry, a solution was found.

When the draining effects of chemotherapy allowed, Pat helped negotiate a return to Somerby Equestrian Centre, run by long-standing supporters Gail and Tony Stimson.

“Once we got on and talked to Gail and Tony, we knew the group would survive,” she said.

“We would love to have a place of our own, but at this place and time we needed to regroup.

“Gail couldn’t take our horses because she has enough of her own so we decided to retire them.

“If you take away what we paid to keep the horses and livery we won’t be any worse off to hire them.

“We will miss the place, it was built with us in mind, but we are feeling quite secure and everyone is now really positive.”

Lessons have been learned and steps taken to avoid similar perils.

The group’s treasurer, and Pat’s husband, Rod is now helping them apply to become an Charitable Incorporated Organisation.

CIO status would give the charity greater legal powers and as, in effect, a limited company, the ability to sign their own leases..

“It will give us more scope to develop and broaden the services we offer,” Pat explained.

“We hope to expand. It will take a while, but we hope to have our own premises again in two or three years which will be made easier by CIO status.”

It is a great leap forward from the group’s humbler, homespun origins.

Driven by volunteers to meet a niche local need, their actions trumped David Cameron’s Big Society bandwagon by more than two decades.

The Mount Group was set up in 1986 at Marefield Farm by parents of pupils at Melton’s Mount Special School after discovering the therapeutic benefits of riding almost by accident.

“They decided to give the kids pony rides at the summer fete and they took to it like ducks to water.

“It was about the time Blue Peter were doing an appeal for RDA which gave them the idea.”

She added: “Ten minutes on a horse is the equivalent of an hour’s physiotherapy.

“And apart from the therapy side of it, they are meeting people, going out and enjoying themselves. The social side is important as well.”

With 12 volunteers and six borrowed ponies, the children began riding once a week.

Pat was approached by Marefield owner Jean Campbell to do secretarial work for the charity, but her even temperament soon saw the role evolve.

“They asked me to go on the committee because there had been a dispute and I wasn’t in either camp; I’ve always had the ability to sit on the fence and see both sides.

“I then got asked if I would be the chairman and that was it.

“My once-in-a-blue-moon became every week.”

The Mount Group is part of a national network of 500 volunteer groups, serving up to 28,000 people a year.

Here in Somerby, more than 40 volunteers give their time to help 35 junior and adult riders every week.

That figure, which includes most of the register at Melton’s Birch Wood School, is soon expected to return to the 50-rider mark and beyond.

But such a demand does not come cheap.

A big part of Pat’s role over the years has been to find the money to keep the group afloat. Running costs are around £35,000 a year and rising.

“The revenue is a lot to find, and goes up all the time,” she said.

“The children pay about £5 an hour, but it would probably cost £16 or £17 an hour normally.

“The paperwork and fundraising is very difficult, but it’s so satisfying.

“It’s the silly little things, especially with the children, that make it so worthwhile.”

The Mount Group works on the simple guiding principle that most things are possible.

This is perhaps a revelation to many of its riders who are more used to obstacles and barriers, and reminders of what they cannot do.

Therapy and participation come before the quest for sporting success, but competition has a big role within their philosophy.

The Riding for the Disabled Assoctaion (RDA) National Championships at Hartpury, in Gloucestershire, and Special Olympics are bold fixtures on their calendar. And they have garnered plenty of medals and rosettes.

Allied to the obvious benefits of achievement on self-esteem, team bonding also helps counteract the solitude of many conditions.

“They are going out of their normal environment,” Pat said.

“At Hartpury you arrive together, you eat together and you support the other riders; it’s a team.

“Some of the competitions might seem very simple, but if you have learning difficulties, the co-ordination is harder for them.”

For some, the championships and training unearth an innate hidden talent.

Four of the current crop have earned selection for the East Midlands team, while another is a para-dressage rider.

“They are not always competitive themselves,” Pat added. “It’s more us!

“They want to win, but for some of them it’s just the taking part. It’s nice to get a medal, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t.

“We are not allowed to help them officially, but we leaders are very competitive!”

One of the group’s biggest sporting success stories is Christine Durrance.

Riding was Christine’s epiphany. It helped her discover a natural gift and gave her a precious creative outlet to hit back at the autism.

“One day she started crying, not because she didn’t win, but because she could have done better, and that’s when I took an interest in her and gave her extra training.

“I became an auntie in a way and she got into more of the competition work and got everyone else going, too.”

After accumulating success at Special Olympics national level in 2009, two years later Christine won dressage gold for Great Britain at the World Games in Athens.

The effect on her confidence and sociability were also marked. She now helps others at the Mount Group and in 2014 won the North Midlands Volunteer of the Year award.

“We have been very lucky with Christine; to represent Great Britain was fantastic for her.

“At eight she had never ridden; it was a wonderful achievement.”

Riders of all ages across a broad spectrum of disabilities, from learning to physical, find achievement and accomplishment here.

The simplest of tests, in our eyes, can be major breakthroughs.

“I think it’s all been successful,” Patt added. “It might only be learning to pick up a ball and put it in a basket or hold the reins, but these little things are all successes.

“To get people with learning disabilities to join in and do something is just wonderful.”

Away from the competition arena, there are many more victories.

Some life-changing, many unforgettable.

“We had a four-year-old lad who was autistic and had never spoken a word,” Pat said.

“We put him on Frankie and one day, after several weeks of sitting on the horse, suddenly this little voice said ‘walk on Frankie’.

“It was the first time his mother had ever heard him speak. There wasn’t a dry eye.”

The work carried out by Pat and her Mount Group volunteers is hard and painstaking.

And for all of the moments that inspire and warm the heart, they have to be prepared for sadness and setback, too.

“We’ve had some laughs over the years. There are a lot of things we used to do that we aren’t allowed to do now because of health and safety.

“Some of the things have been so funny.

“But also there are a lot of riders who haven’t made old bones and that is so sad.”

After being confined to bed by her early treatment, Pat’s positivity appears to be paying off.

After her initial prognosis of six to nine months, her six-month scan revealed the tumour had shrunk slightly.

As the shopping days rapidly tick down towards another Christmas, Pat completed her latest course of chemotherapy last month and continues to do well.

She has started a bucket list ‘for a laugh’ and flew a two-seater aeroplane for the first time.

There is talk of abseiling, and sailing on a tall ship, even a wing walk.

This week she will reluctantly let go of the reins as county chairman at the National RDA’s annual meeting.

Fittingly she will be presented to the charity’s patron and president, HRH The Princess Royal.

Then, with her latest challenge complete and foundations laid for the group’s long-term future, Pat will finally take her hand from the Mount Group tiller.

“I will stay on as a trustee. Well I couldn’t just go cold turkey could I?

“I get a lot of satisfaction from it; we all do and I’ve met some really nice people.

“In life there are lots of things you would like to change, but I would never change my time with the RDA.

“You have to appreciate every moment; happy or sad.”