Aroundtown Meets… Marjorie Sheppard

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Aside from the glitter of tinsel, the flicker of lights and the giving of presents, Christmas is the season of goodwill; a time where many are humbled with a charitable heart and a longing to help those in need.

But perhaps the personification of selflessness and generosity, one Rotherham lady dedicates 365 days of the year to helping others, running horse riding classes for the disabled for over 35 years.

As the backbone of the Thorpe Hesley based High Hopes Riding for the Disabled group, Marjorie Sheppard works around the clock to provide horse and carriage riding lessons to those with physical and learning disabilities.

Interested in horses since she was a wee 11.1HH six-year-old, Marjorie’s ride through life has seen her delivering muck around Whiston as a child aboard beloved pony Peggy and trap, to being asked to coach the national equestrian team for the Special Olympics.

In 1980, she established a regional RDA group in Doncaster after being asked by committee of Tickhill ladies if she could teach the disabled to ride.

Starting off with eight riders, the club taught over 150 students in its first year. A couple of years later and its success brought along the formation of a Rotherham branch, with the two ultimately merging.

After many happy years, the club was renamed High Hopes in 2007, moving from their old residence at Rockingham House Lodge, Rawmarsh, to new stables at Thorpe Hesley in 2010.

Today, Marjorie and the High Hopes team offer weekly riding lessons to improve confidence and self-esteem, as well as balance, co-ordination and posture.

Passionate about the rehabilitation benefits that hippotherapy can bring, Marjorie has brought light back into many families’ lives in both a physical and emotional sense.

Most of the people that come here, someone has always been so quick to say ‘they can’t do this, or they can’t do that.’ They never focus on the positives and what they can achieve. Many are written off far too early.

But I’m always inspired by them and the different qualities they all have.”

Marjorie’s involvement of working with disabled started at 14 when she volunteered as an extra pair of hands at Newman School, helping with the school’s horses they also had back then.

Since working with the RDA, Marjorie has gained a credible reputation thanks to her steadfastly commitment to the stables and confidence in what her students can accomplish.

They all seem to ring me as they think I can make wonders. But there are no miracles, except for those four-legged animals. Even though I don’t like them horses much,” she laughs.

Seeing overwhelming change in her students, Marjorie and the High Hopes team have worked with thousands of riders to achieve personal goals and work towards new-found strengths.

Arriving at the livery one blustering afternoon, Marjorie and fellow instructor Josie, a former headteacher at Cedar Special School, Doncaster, were teaching two young girls from Oasis Watermead Academy, Sheffield.

Aged six and nine, it was the second time the girls had ridden a horse, with the elder of the two riding unaided.

After familiarising themselves with the horses, Marjorie and Josie taught the girls about the animals and how to care for them.

Riding, standing and even trotting, Marjorie used educational games to help develop the girls’ functional skills as well as navigation.

Rolling a dice, the girls answered questions about everything they had been taught. How many knees do they have. How many eyes, and hooves.

Their teaching assistants they told us how the girls’ confidence had rocketed over the last week, and how they’d become more engaged at school too, despite original reservations and nerves around the horses.

But as Marjorie says: “Many of the kids come and stand around the corner, they won’t come in to us. But you introduce a pony and they start to soften. Then you can start and talk through the pony.”

With the utmost passion for what she does, Marjorie and the volunteers at High Hopes have helped so many families over the past three decades, bringing them together and being somewhat of a guidance councillor.

You get so much joy being around these parents when they finally see their children achieving when they’ve been told they never will.”

From taking small steps in their rehabilitation, to precipitating in national events, the riders have been an asset to High Hopes, helping them gain notoriety amongst fellow RDA groups.

Having joined the Special Olympics in 1991, Marjorie formed the Dearne Valley group in 1993, taking part in the Sheffield Games, which her students are currently preparing for when it returns to Sheffield next year. 

Their students have competed in regional and national games every year since then, continuing to win medals and achieve personal goals.

One of the stars of High Hopes, former student Mark Hood was chosen to compete in the 1995 Summer Games for the Special Olympics team, heading off to America with the national team where he won silver and bronze in the equestrian sports.

Organising residential holidays for the riders at the likes of Masham, North Yorks, and Wilsic Hall, Doncaster, the group have enjoyed many happy times together, thanks to the fundraising efforts of the Tickhill Ladies.

But for rider Kate, who has Downs Syndrome, her mum warned Marjorie that she wouldn’t sleep on her own. After spending time with the group, Kate finally managed to settle and enjoyed her times as a valued member of the team.

That trip changed Kate. She went home and slept in her own bedroom for the first time in her life. Her mum said to me, ‘you took a little girl with you and brought me back a young lady.’”

Marjorie tells us of the bravest person she’d ever met, a young lady called Jane with spina bifida.

She’s very clever and had always wanted to ride, but her spine had not developed enough. But, we worked with her, making a roll so she could hold her body up against the horse.”

Ambitious, Jane pursued her equestrian dreams, riding independently to music for Princess Anne’s visit to the stables, then learning to trot before wanting to canter.

It was difficult because her bottom half wasn’t heavy enough stay on the horse. But we did it, holding her down. Then she said she didn’t want me to hold her. I said to her dad, what shall I do?

He said I’d just have to let her try it. She inevitably fell off, but it never phased her. She now drives pony and trap.”

And the final story shows just how incredible interacting with a horse can be.

After his father was a rider at High Hopes, one little boy came one day with his mum. Non-verbal, unable to sit and as stiff as a board, they decided to lay him over a pony to see what happened.

His fingers started to twitch, feeling at the horse. I said to his mum, tell the doctors he HAS got sensation. Then he started to smell, taking deep breaths in to inhale the horse’s scent. This big smile spread across his face, which was the icing on the cake for me.”

Marjorie eventually gave the boy lessons, with him going onto do an aided five-mile sponsored trek.

He only rode for eight months before he passed away. But his mum was so thankful for us giving him a reason to get up in a morning and for giving her a happy little boy for eight months.”

Whilst many riders have been in wheelchairs for the most their lives, Marjorie says that hippotherapy has been the best physiotherapy for them.

Never moving from seated, all they’ve ever seen is the floor level and people’s bums. But you put them on a horse and suddenly they see everything.

If their legs don’t work, the horse acts as their legs. The movement from riding reverberates back up into their spine, moving the muscles they’ve seldom used.”

But what about these amazing animals? We can’t get this far without mentioning the stars of the show.

With some loyal mares and other cheeky geldings, High Hopes have 11 horses they teach with, plus two retired.

There’s Spike, a character who likes to eat the flowers at riding events. Little Shetland Rocky with his chestnut mane. And gentle soul Lofty who has won many medals for his riders.

Towering over the others at 16.2HH, Justin has been well-ridden in recent years, working with everyone from a six-year-old girl, to a partially blind teenager, and fully-grown males.

After many happy years, all the horses are cared for in their retirement, with old Tom living until he was 43.

We give them a good life here, why put them down when they still have all their faculties.”

The club even started out using Marjorie’s own horses she bought for her two sons, Michael and James.

Having grown up in Whiston surrounded by farm life and animals, Marjorie wanted her own children to enjoy a marvellous childhood as she had and form a connection with horses.

The youngest of nine, days as a child were spent rushing down Guilthwaite Hill on a trolley or taking the horses from Rose Cottage to fetes with Johnny Armitage.

My mother said they broke the mould when they made me. If I’d have been the first, I’d have been the last.”

When Michael, now 41 and a farrier, was born, she bought his first horse while he was still a baby, competing from the tender age of two.

He sat on a horse more often than I changed his bum,” she says.

Entering her boys into gymkhanas and village shows, Marjorie made little outfits for them to compete in.

When her younger son James, now 37, was 16 months old, he competed in his first event as a Baby Beefeater, with a little hat made from a margarine tub, his brother a trumpet-wielding heralder.

The best outfit I ever made was a bunny for James from a fluffy sleepsuit, some big feet and rabbit ears. I put a shell on the horse and they went as the hare and tortoise. Everyone laughed as James fell asleep in the trap.”

As a volunteer at High Hopes, Marjorie has continued to work full-time to subsidise her work at the stables.

Today, Marjorie works four nights a week in a care home for the disabled, but her working life has been as colourful as a horse’s rosette.

After leaving school, she applied for a job in the office at Steelos, but walked out after discovering it wasn’t for her.

Helping on Merryweathers Farm, she then went on to get her first real job at Whiston Service Station which somewhat ignited her other love; motoring.

Wanting to learn to drive, she took a job on a milk round for Betty Clays in Whiston, before offering to valet cars at Pennine Motor Group in exchange for free lessons.

He asked me how many freebies I was expecting. I said I only want to pass my test, I’ve been driving tractors since I was eight.”

After passing her test, Marjorie walked down from the old Clifton test centre to the jobs place in search of a driving job.

They asked me how long I’d been driving. I said I’d passed my test about ten minutes ago.”

After over an hour of persuading Morris Simpson she was the best person for the job, she secured a place delivering sweets and cigarettes, leaving in a new minivan.

From a fork lift truck driver to a car jockey for Bentley, Marjorie then went on to work as a prison office for 14 years with Group Four.

Driving the custody vans, the kids would rock and overturn them.

One day, I was driving and I shouted to the officer in back, put your belt on, I’ll show you what I do when horses are acting up in trailer. I applied the brakes and they never did it again.”

After leaving the role 15 years ago to work full-time with the disabled, Marjorie branched into care work to coincide with her work within the RDA.

Today, she channels her experiences into her teaching, working with the 20 other volunteers to create a happy place away from home for the riders to come and enjoy.

We have a lot of fun, but we also have a lot of upset. I have to be firm sometimes as I need to instil belief into the people that come. It makes them think that they can do it cos that Mrs over there said I can.

Sometimes, through the bad times, I think it’s not the be all and end all, I can always walk away when I’ve had enough. But I’m always back here the next day, seven days a week – its’ just a way of life now.

Besides, somebody has got to feed horses. They’ve become my truest friends.”

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