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Discovering Formby's Past - Riding for the Disabled

Part 1

The Brewery Lane Riding School begun by Tom Bowler in 1941 still flourishes today and, like many businesses launched during the difficult war and post war years, sprang originally from pure chance and a willingness to grasp what life offered. The Riding School was born out of the stubbornness of a pony called Tich, who would not stay at home. Joe Scott, whom I have written about previously, was having trouble with Tich, whom he had bought for his young son to ride. Tich continually escaped from the Scott paddock and made his way uninvited into Tom Bowler’s field. Eventually Joe Scott told Tom he might as well have the pony for his seven year old daughter Mary. Joe said sadly that his young son was not really keen to ride the pony anyway, and Tich obviously preferred life with the Bowlers. Tom was a proud man, with no money to speak of, but would not accept it for nothing. Joe said ‘give me a fiver then’. Somehow Tom scraped together five pounds, Tich became his and life at the Bowler small holding changed for ever. Little Mary was besotted with Tich and was seen riding round the village with her father in attendance. People began to stop and ask if he would teach their children to ride. In those difficult war years, with no petrol for domestic use and little public transport, parents were looking for fun outdoor activities for their children to enjoy near home. Tom and Tich were happy to oblige and soon Tich had earned enough money to buy another pony. Before long those two earned enough to buy two more ponies and the Riding School was established and thriving.

Tom’s young daughter Mary lived for the ponies and right from the age of seven spent every spare moment riding, grooming and attending to them. There was still little cash to spare, and earnings were not spent on anything other than basics. Saving was vital. Tom went round farm sales buying up old sheds to fashion into stables. He called his enterprise The Children’s Riding School but several adults also came to ride, and then a couple of horse owners asked if their horses could be stabled at the School. One of then, still remembered by some older Formby residents, was a somewhat eccentric artist named Miss Fiddler, with a horse called Gambler. She was a talented and successful artist but not a brilliant rider. Quite often Gambler came home without her, and she would arrive later on foot. On one occasion Gambler was found wandering near Freshfield Station. Tom Bowler was contacted and a search set in motion. It was guessed that she had ridden to the beach. By sheer good luck two walkers, the only people on the beach that afternoon, had spotted a pile of something just about to be covered by the incoming tide. It was Miss Fiddler, unconscious and concussed. They had found her just in time to save her from drowning. Thankfully, the search party were in time to help the rescuers. After a couple of days in hospital she resumed her riding quite undeterred, still continuing to fall off from time to time. In contrast to her riding, Miss Fiddler’s painting was very successful and there were exhibitions of her work in Liverpool.

Although in his seventies Miss Fiddler’s father also began riding with Bowlers. Suddenly it seemed that everyone in Formby knew someone who wanted to ride, but Tom was not a well man, and Mary left school at sixteen and came into the business rather than staying on for Sixth Form, as her sister had done. It was not a difficult choice since she just wanted to make horses her life. She decided to get some qualifications, and went to Monk’s Riding School in Aughton several times a week; this meant train to Sandhills, train to Aughton Green Station, and a good twenty minute walk! She had lessons there and sat and passed The British Horse Society Preliminary Instructors Certificate. For a short while Mary competed in Riding Events, including Dressage, and did well. However, the business was thriving, and she could not really spare time away from it.

The Bowlers rented their land from Ince Blundell Estates. In the early sixties Captain Weld Blundell, head of his family, died and Inheritance Tax forced his family to sell up. Mary was able to purchase the seven acres which the Bowlers rented, using money which had been carefully saved against such a day.

Help was brought in to assist Mary. Her father was aging, none too well, and did not teach anymore. However, he kept fences and buildings in sound order, and still had his hens - more of them than ever because he was now selling eggs to the Egg Marketing Board. The Bowler home seemed always to be full of eggs waiting for Mrs, Bowler to wash, and dry them ready for despatch.

By now Mary had saved £1,000 towards an indoor arena so that people could have lessons in all weathers. This was not just for riders’ comfort, but meant that bad weather did not mean cancelled lessons. She still required another £1,000. Two women, mothers of pupils at the School, were aware of this and in 1961 each offered to lend her £500. She never asked - they simply offered and required nothing in writing, nor interest. The covered arena generated so much extra business that she was able to pay them back eighteen months later.

There had been so much hard work along the way, so much good will, and so much generosity. Joe Scott had not wanted to be paid for Tich the pony and the two women who lent money had not asked for any surety. The business had prospered by sheer hard work, good will and word of mouth. But the best was still to come*.

One of Mary’s treasured memories of her childhood involved the delightful Joe Scott, always there in the background of her life. When she was nine, he became District Commissioner of the West Lancashire Pony Club, and saw to it that Mary became a member. One day in the school holidays he took his eleven-year old daughter Joy and Mary on a picnic ride, with lunch sacks on their backs. They rode to Monks’ Riding School in Aughton. There they collected a large group of riders, and rode to Ashurst Beacon. They unsaddled their horses, ate their picnics, saddled up and rode home. The round trip was forty miles! Mary had not ridden any real distance till then, and was unbelievably sore and stiff for a couple of days. But it was a landmark day for her, and it had also been glorious summer weather.

*…. ‘The best was yet to come...’

Mary on her pony ~Whiskey, with little dog Chummy who liked to ride on her lap. Taken in Wicks Lane as it used to be.

Helen Scott, winner of the National Disabled Dressage Championship in 1989

Part 2:

The Brewery Lane Riding School has much to be proud of. For over seventy five years many people young and old have spent happy hours riding there. But without doubt their greatest achievement has been their work in Riding for the Disabled. Not only has it had a profound effect on the disabled riders themselves, but it has been made possible by scores of patient and devoted volunteer helpers whose support is something of which Formby can be very proud.

Tich the pony was instrumental in the launch of the Riding School in 1941. In 1965 a little boy called Max was the inspiration for Disabled Riding. His sister Dawn came to Mary Bowler for lessons during school holidays. When her mother parked the car at the gate there was always a figure huddled on the back seat. One day the figure got out. It was a little boy with Downs Syndrome. He watched Dawn’s lesson with his mother and when the girl dismounted at the end of her lesson, Mary asked Max if he would like to sit on the pony. His mother was not keen, but Dawn persuaded her. Mary found Max a hard hat, picked him up, sat him on the pony and walked him round the yard. The child was smiling from ear to ear. He loved it. He was at a special school in term time but from then on Max came with his sister for lessons in the holidays. Mary learned to repeat instructions slowly and carefully and Max soaked it all up. The parents of other disabled children heard about it and applied for lessons for their youngsters. Meanwhile up and down the country other riding schools were doing what Mary was doing, and in 1968 the Riding for the Disabled Association was born (RDA), and Mary applied for membership There was an official inspection of the Brewery Lane premises, horses, general facilities, fields and fences. Mary was asked to give two sample lessons, one to disabled persons, and one to able-bodied ones. Formby Riding School was approved and has been part of RDA ever since.

In the early years a great many disabled children rode in Brewery Lane. It was a great joy for local children in special schools or homes (the children from St. Joseph’s affectionately called Mary ‘Pony Lady’). However, many disabled children are now absorbed into mainstream schools and the number of disabled child riders has declined in term time because schools cannot allow children to be out of school for what are judged to be non-educational purposes, and in any case it would be difficult to arrange. But while it is so good to see handicapped children in mainstream education, those who work with RDA emphasise the joy of such children feeling movement underneath them and having a partnership with a living creature, to say nothing of coaxing development of co-ordination and muscle strength. Mary has wonderful tales of some of the disabled children she has taught and been surprised and impressed by. There was one, of she grew very fond, who had an official IQ of 40. The child was only ever known to speak when sitting on a pony, and even then only a very little. During one heartbreakingly memorable lesson, Mary gently corrected her for sitting carelessly and said teasingly “wibble wobble, jelly on a plate!” The child looked her in the eye and said clearly, “Mary Mary, quite contrary.” No-one could believe it. There have been generations of disabled riders of all ages whose lives have been greatly enhanced by RDA Formby. And the work still goes on here.

One hugely successful and memorable young rider was Helen Scott, a thalidomide victim who began riding lessons when she was seven. She was soon competing in shows and in 1989 she rode in the RDA National Dressage Championship at Hartpury and won it, riding Mary’s pony Conrad. She was subsequently selected for the British team to compete in the first World Disabled Dressage Championship in Sweden. Two years later she rode in the second World Championship in Denmark. She came fourth and on form, could have won a medal, but sadly flash photography startled her horse during her round; but she coped magnificently and still achieved a fourth place. A friend of mine who was a volunteer for RDA at the time has said to me that Helen was “poetry in motion” on a horse. What an inspiring young woman she is, still living in Formby, and independent and hard-working as ever.

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