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Somerset Character, Sarah Ford meets Agnes Smalley, Taking the Reins

PUBLISHED: 13:06 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:40 20 February 2013

Somerset Character, Sarah Ford meets Agnes Smalley, Taking the Reins

Somerset Character, Sarah Ford meets Agnes Smalley, Taking the Reins

Sarah Ford meets Agnes Smalley and hears about her long-standing dedication to Riding for the Disabled

Taking the Reins

Sarah Ford meets Agnes Smalley and hears about her long-standing dedication to Riding for the Disabled

At the age of 13, Agnes Smalley was struck by a mystery illness and lost the power of speech and the use of her legs.
When the Second World War broke out the London teenager was sent to the Isle of Wight, where she was taken out for rides every day. She began to recover at an amazing rate and vowed that if she ever had the chance to own a pony and help others in the same way, then she would do so. Agnes was true to her word, and by the 1970s many disabled youngsters were enjoying rides on her grey Welsh cob, Quenton.
For some 40 years Agnes has been a stalwart of Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) and has been honoured for her work on several occasions, including the Dudley-Smith Award for her outstanding dedication.
She now lives in Frome and is a volunteer with the Somerset Levels Carriage Driving Group, which is affiliated to the RDA and British Driving Society. The organisation enables disabled people, who are not able to sit on a horse, the opportunity to pursue an interest in the sport of carriage driving. Many in the medical profession consider the activity to be helpful in terms of self-confidence and improving sensory development and co-ordination.
About 30 disabled drivers attend the weekly sessions between March and October at the groups venues in Polsham, near Wells, and the Bath and West Showground, Shepton Mallet. Some of them also compete at national level at the Royal Windsor Horse Show.
There is a team of around 20 helpers in the carriage driving group, some acting as able-bodied whips, while others look after the horses, carriages, lorry, trailers and classroom facilities and, very importantly, raise funds.
Several are there to meet me when I visit Agnes to talk about her life-long love of horses and carriage driving; a passion which began over 80 years ago when she was just a small girl.
We had a goat which lived at the bottom of our garden, and when I was about four years old I used to drive the goat cart down to the allotment, she recalls.
There was a lane at the back of our house where the shire horses, which pulled the dust carts, would pass along. I would spend hours watching them arrive back at the end of the day. I cried my eyes out when one of them didnt come home it had fallen and broken its leg.
When Agnes was six she began helping the milkman with his deliveries on a float pulled by
a pony.
One day he let me take the reins. I was about six and I told myself that when I was a big girl I would have a driving pony, but I never thought it would come true!
When Agnes returned to London from the Isle of Wight, she took further riding lessons and later helped with the sub branch of the Enfield Chase
Pony Club.
Forming a pony club in her own right, Agnes and a team of helpers provided disabled youngsters with the chance to ride.
The children were brought to the field on a Friday night by ambulance from the hospital. Some were on stretchers and we would lie them on the back of the ponies.

We used to give the children a picnic and hope for the least number of air raids during the war.

We used to give the children a picnic and hope for the least number of air raids during the war. We were very lucky!
Agnes bought two-and-a-half-year-old Quenton in 1974 and started driving him in London. She was a member of the Civil Service Riding Club, which was given permission to use the Royal Mews when the Knightsbridge Barracks were being rebuilt.
One day, after driving in the Royal Mews, the pony refused to get in his box to go home, so it was suggested that Agnes leave him in the royal stables with the Windsor greys.
When I came to fetch him the next day he was on such a big bed of straw and was cocking a snook at the big greys at the side of him. Ill never forget it.
He was a smashing pony; you can never replace one like that, says Agnes who presented a competition shield to the riding group in Quentons memory.
The ponies we use for the RDA have good training sessions and they have to have a special temperament. Some ponies take to it straight away.
Back in 1980, Agnes was invited to take part in a special drive at Sandringham to celebrate the Queen Mothers 80th birthday. And during the RDAs silver jubilee year, she was invited to tea at Buckingham Palace. In 2000 she received a long service award from HRH Princess Royal.
Today, Agnes takes some of the carriage drivers for their grade 1 and 2 tests and still finds her work with the group rewarding.
If people are not able to ride then they can drive, says Agnes.
They often express a feeling of freedom and get terrific pleasure out of being in contact with a horse. You only have to see the expressions on their faces to know that.
For further information about The Somerset Levels Carriage Driving Group, please contact the Chairman, Robert Hose, on 01278 722763.


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