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A second chance in life after harness racing

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By Pam Kiriakidis

Providing a second chance is the purpose of the Heroes for RDA Program that places retired harness racehorses in Riding for the Disabled Association of Victoria, RDAV, centres across the state.

Launched last month, the Heroes for RDA Program is a collaborative initiative between Harness Racing Victoria’s Hero program and equestrian retraining group Raising the Standards to source more horses to RDAV centres that provide equine-assisted activities for people with disabilities.   

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Raising the Standards founder Nic Tassone is a trainer for the program who will assist with the ongoing demand for trained horses in the centres across metropolitan and regional Victoria.   

From her homestead in Clonbinane where she has trained standardbreds for more than a decade, Mrs Tassone said she focused on groundwork, teaching standardbreds the skills they needed before heading to RDA centres.

Most of the horses that Harness Racing Victoria’s Hero program commits to Mrs Tassone are good natured, but unfamiliar with being ridden due to their background as pacers or trotters in professional harness racing operations.

“Many standardbreds have never had a person on the back before, and then it’s specialised training – it’s getting them used to things like wheelchairs. They do a lot of fun sensory activites at RDAV where they have to go around activity stations, which each horse will need to be exposed to,” she said.

“Standardbreds are a fantastic breed because they are versatile and very intelligent and willing, and their temperament suits RDAV because they are calm and kind.”  

Once their training was complete, Mrs Tassone said the horses were ready to be placed in RDA centres operated by small teams of volunteers to help provide benefited people with disabilities.  

“Most of these centres are run by volunteers. They show up multiple times a week … it’s a huge job and I take my hat off to anybody involved in that,” she said.  

The Heroes for RDA program allocated its first horse to the Doveton RDAV centre this year.

Before graduating to the centre, eight-year-old gelding Adam underwent intensive training at Raising the Standards with Mrs Tassone, who understands the need for standardbreds.

“I just think the idea that we can give more standardbreds opportunities beyond the track is great,” she said.

“Also knowing the fantastic work RDAV does for the students involved in the programs, it’s just soul food for me.  

“The RDAV centres have got a high demand for suitable program horses, because they can only provide therapy based on horse-to-student ratios.”

The program has seen community support, with Mitavite providing food supplements to the Raising the Standards horses and Kilmore’s EQ Saddlery recently contributing a $500 store credit as a community bonus initiative.

Mrs Tassone said the community was invited to support the work of the Heroes for RDA initiative.

“Heroes for RDA is the ultimate collaboration and we’re welcoming and grateful of any contributions,” she said.

“It takes a huge amount of resourcing to suitably prepare a horse for their specialised role in RDA and we still need to kit our property out with wheelchair ramps and other equipment.”

To learn more or get involved, people can contact Nic Tassone at raisingthestandards@hotmail.com.

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