A Middlesbrough riding for the disabled charity is looking after its horses and riders during the pandemic with the help of further support from the North East’s biggest building society.

Last year, a £3,000 grant given through Newcastle Building Society’s Linthorpe Road branch in Middlesbrough enabled The Unicorn Centre in Hemlington to purchase Caesar, a 15.3 hands grey cob who has helped the centre meet an ever-growing demand for riding lessons.

The centre, which in normal times offers riding therapy and learning and training opportunities for over 200 disabled adults and children from the Tees Valley area every week, was forced to close its doors in March as the pandemic took hold.

But despite losing all its sources of income, it has still had to meet the considerable cost of looking after its 18 horses, and has also needed to find ways to keep in touch with riders and volunteers who weren’t able to make their usual visits.

A further £1,000 grant from Newcastle Building Society, along with donations from members of the public, has helped the Unicorn Centre ride out the worst of the lockdown storm – and it is now starting to get its activities up and running once again.

Caesar and the other horses are now on a fitness programme to help get them ready for the restart of lessons in late August, while the centre has also just begun to stage its first open events.

Claire Pitt, centre manager at The Unicorn Centre, says: “We reduced our overheads as quickly and as far as we could, but despite this, the horses still need to be fed, cared for and looked after by the vet, and it’s been a real challenge to keep things going during the lockdown.

“The support we’ve had from Newcastle Building Society and our local community has made a massive difference and we’re indebted to them for the backing they’ve provided which has helped us survive the hardest months we’ve ever known.”

The Unicorn Centre aims to provide riding for people with disabilities in an inclusive, safe and supportive environment that will allow each individual to achieve their full potential and has a team of around 100 local volunteers who assist with lessons each week.

It was voted British Dressage Northern Small Venue of the Year in 2018, and was the first centre of its type to win the Matrix Standard, a nationally-recognised quality mark for organisations which provide support to individuals to make learning and work more accessible, as well as the UK’s first accredited Dementia Friendly riding establishment and RDA group.

Claire Pitt continues: “The horses have enjoyed their time out in the fields, but they’ve all missed having contact with our riders and volunteers, most especially Caesar – he’s a lovely horse who really enjoys the attention he gets from everyone here and he has a big fan club among our riders and volunteers.

“Visiting the centre is a hugely important part of the lives of so many of our riders and volunteers and we’ve worked hard to keep in regular touch with as many of them as we can via phone calls and social media to make sure they know we’re going to be there for them again soon.

“We’ve put lots of new protocols in place to make sure we can offer riding lessons safely and we can’t wait to start welcoming everyone back once the horses are back to full fitness.”

The funding for the projects was provided by the Newcastle Building Society Community Fund at the Community Foundation, which was set up to offer grants to charities and community groups located in or around the communities served by the Society’s branch network.

Kimberley Saunders, manager at Newcastle Building Society’s Middlesbrough branch, adds: “Like many charities, The Unicorn Centre has been facing an extremely difficult situation over the last few months and we’re very glad to be able to continue our support for this fantastic organisation.

“We know how much of a positive impact the Unicorn Centre has on our community and we’re sure both horses and riders are looking forward to seeing each other again soon.”

Since its launch in 2016, Newcastle Building Society’s Community Fund has also contributed over £2.1m in grants and partnerships with the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and the Princes Trust. The grants are so far estimated to have had a positive impact on more than 151,000 people.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Society also made a £100,000 contribution to the £1m appeal set up by the Tyne and Wear Community Foundation for its Coronavirus Recovery and Response Fund.

The Newcastle Building Society Community Fund is run in association with the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.