Not just horseplay – the importance of the Riding for the Disabled Association’s Unicorn Centre

SHE has been in the saddle helping people learn how to horse ride for almost 18 years at the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) Unicorn Centre, Claire Pitt explains why it is such a fulfilling job and how the public can help secure its galloping success.

Each week almost than 200 riders feel empowered, thrilled and get to nurture close bonds with the 20 magnificent horses and ponies they get to lead around the all-weather arena in Middlesbrough.

This isn’t just horse riding, for participants in wheelchairs or those with other mobility issues it gives them a huge sense of freedom.

“The horses have a massive impact on peoples’ lives. I have the most amazing job and it has been an incredibly humbling experience but that’s down to the wonderful volunteers and horses,” she said.

She is eager for the centre’s success to continue with ambitions for a bigger indoor and outdoor arenas, therapy room and mechanical horse simulator but needs donations to ensure it will be able to deliver its  expansion plans.

THERAPY: Inside the arena at the RDA Unicorn Centre in Middlesbrough.

THERAPY: Inside the arena at the RDA Unicorn Centre in Middlesbrough.

Claire has loved horses since she was a child but after suffering a bad riding accident she was she didn’t get back on until she was at secondary school – but knew that they were her life. She deferred her place at university to achieve a British Horse Society’s instructor qualification and became a freelance coach.

Forgoing her degree and knowing that an office job was not for her, she joined her local territorial army branch in Hartlepool which was part of the Royal Engineers where she thoroughly enjoyed the training and exercises as well as meeting her future husband.

It was her commanding officer who told her about proposals for the fantastic new RDA Unicorn Centre, one of the first major winners of National Lottery funding in the North East scooping £1.12m together with £70,000 from the Sports Council. Claire became its first member of staff back in 1998 and has been an integral part of its continued success ever since.

As well as its weekly 200 disabled riders who come from across the Tees Valley each week, there are more than 130 registered volunteers without whom, Claire said, the centre could not do without. “We are indebted to every one of them,” she said. The centre has partnered with Middlesbrough College to provide students with and without learning difficulties or disabilities a diploma in work-based horse care and it’s an approved venue for British Dressage competitions.

One of its participants centre is aiming to secure a place on the GB Paralympic Dressage team. Jane Lishman from Darlington thought she would never ride again after she was dragged underneath a horse and had both legs amputated.


WINNERS: For the second year running the centre won at the RDA Gala awards, most recently in the ‘Brilliant Idea’ category for the centre’s Supported Volunteer Programme. Pictured l-r presenter Clare Balding, Claire Pitt (Unicorn Centre Manager), representative from sponsor Automotive Insulations and Emily Richardson, Unicorn Centre Volunteer Co-ordinator. Photo courtesy of RDA Gala Awards.

The Unicorn Centre bought the first horse she ever completed on and after winning is back in the saddle and determined to compete at the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016.

The centre, which has been visited twice by Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal, has been awarded the Matrix quality standard and the RDA’s Gala award for its supported volunteer programme where she got to meet Clare Balding (“she was absolutely lovely, really energetic and very slim”)

“We were one of the first charities to get a major Lottery grant in the region and people might get the impression that, because of our fantastic facility, that we are well-off but we constantly have to fundraise. We need people to support us by adopting a pony or through business sponsorship.”

On her wishlist are another arena so more riders can can be coached the same time and a mechanical horse simulator, which comes with a £50,000 price tag.

She added: “Riding offers so much to our particpants, there’s nothing like the special relationship with an animal. Riding is an amazing form of therapy, not only does it help balance and strengthen the core but it helps improve muscle tone. It’s also fun and gives an element of risk which makes it exciting.

“Some have their sights set on competitions while for others with more severe disabilities, being able to hold their head up down one side of the arena is a huge achievement. It is all about helping all our participants realise their potential.”


RDA Unicorn Centre, Stainton Way, Hemlington, Middlesbrough, TS8 9LX

General Enquiries email:

Volunteer Co-ordinator email:

Training and Courses email:

Call: 01642-576222