Great-gran Millis Thomson got back in the saddle to mark her 100th birthday. Gayle Ritchie finds out more.
There are myriad ways to celebrate your 100th birthday but great-gran Millis Thomson’s dreams came true when she took to horseback on the big day.
Millis, from Perth, enjoyed a special riding lesson at The Brae Riding for the Disabled (RDA) in Dundee and she just couldn’t stop smiling.
It was the first time she had ridden in decades, but as soon as she mounted Django – almost a replica of the coloured horse she used to ride to school in Canada – she felt immediately at ease; in her happy place.
After enjoying a leisurely ride around the indoor arena, Millis was presented with a certificate, a bouquet of flowers and a framed photo of Django by staff keen to mark the fact she was the oldest person ever to have a lesson at the centre.
It had been almost 90 years since she last got into the saddle so she was completely over-the-moon.
“It was great to be on a horse again!” she beamed. “The hardest bit though was the saddle as we never bothered with those and only rode bareback!
“I used to ride my horse to school as a child and would go out and talk to him at recess.
“He was in the field and he would come over. It was just like having another person to talk to.”
It was Millis’s great-granddaughter Amelie Moir who arranged the lesson to mark the centenary. And Amelie, a first year pupil at Edinburgh’s Broughton High School, was thrilled to be riding alongside her great-grandma on cute Highland pony, Harris.
The 12-year-old, who inherited her love of horses and has one of her very own, Petrov, knew it would make Millis’s day.
“Whenever I see her, we always talk about horses,” said Amelie. “I knew she really wanted to get on a horse again and thought if we could make that happen on her 100th birthday it would be amazing.”
Ride to school
Millis grew up on a farm in Northern Saskatchewan in rural Canada and was given a brown and white horse which she called Beauty by her father to ride to school some miles away.
She rode bareback with no saddle and was sometimes joined by a friend on Beauty. Millis’s grandson Gordon Moir (Amelia’s dad) said: “She just had to call the horse and he came and knew exactly where to take her. He was left in a paddock all day to be ridden home after school.
“When they moved to Saskatoon in the 1930s, she no longer had a horse but she’s always spoken fondly of Beauty.”
Millis met her Aberdonian husband Bob when he was stationed in Canada on RAF training during the Second World War.
After the war she came over on the troop ship Ile de France to the UK – she had a berth in the sick bay with one other female passenger.
She married Bob and settled in Aberdeen in 1946 and the couple had a daughter and son, four grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
Move to Scotland
After 50 years in Aberdeen, Millis moved to Perth to be closer to her daughter, Dorothy.
“Only recently when Amelie became horse-mad did she begin to reminisce about Beauty and her days on the farm,” said Gordon.
“She’s loved riding since she was little and Millis always liked to come along and watch her. Now she’s not so mobile, she loves watching videos of Amelie riding.
“We had the idea of asking an RDA centre and as Millis lives in Perth, The Brae in Dundee was recommended to us as best able to support her to do it.
“They’ve been brilliant ever since we first contacted them about it, and the staff were superb when we went along.”
Into the swing of things
Gordon said Millis was, understandably, a “little nervous” to start with, but thanks to the staff being so brilliant, she quickly got into the swing of things.
“They picked Django because they thought he would remind her of Beauty,” she said.
“It was such a special bonding experience for Millis to ride with her great-grandma – a great experience for everyone.”
Dream come true
Alison Doyle, the chair of The Brae RDA, said: “We were delighted when Millis’s relatives contacted us to find out if we could make her dream come true. Even better that we could supply a safe pony which was a replica of her own horse all these years ago.
“Django is our newest pony and he was very steady and careful as Millis did a lap of honour around our arena.
“This is a first for The Brae – we have had a number of riders and volunteers well into their older years but a 100-year-old rider is a first!”
Millis was surrounded by family members galore when she took the saddle including grandchildren and great-grandchildren from Edinburgh, New Zealand, Perth and Coventry.
And the celebrations didn’t stop there! “It was a four-day celebration!” said Gordon. “Her care home, Viewlands House in Perth, held a party for her, and their fabulous chef Brian made her a 100th birthday cake.
“We also had a family party and a lunch at the Royal George hotel in Perth for extended family and friends.
“Millis gave a lovely speech saying how lucky she feels and that she’s had such a good time that it just makes her want to live longer and longer!”
Riding for the Disabled
The Brae RDA centre opened in March 2008 and is just off the A92 near Broughty Ferry.
Here, people are able to enjoy horse riding in a safe and secure way.
Indeed, medical professionals recognise that riding offers significant benefits. The warmth and three-dimensional movement of the horse is transmitted through the rider’s body, gradually making it more relaxed and supple, reducing spasms and improving balance, muscle-tone, co-ordination and posture.
Riding offers a challenge, often denied to many people, especially those who have been affected by an accident or serious illness and offers them a chance to regain mobility and a sense of achievement.
People with congenital disabilities discover a new freedom of movement.
The Brae RDA currently provides riding and groundwork (non-ridden work with horses) to more than 80 children and adults each week.
Volunteers are essential in every area of RDA life. From coaches to cake bakers, fundraisers to DIY, people support RDA in many different ways – and The Brae RDA always needs more.
Volunteers ages range from 14 years (the minimum required) to several over 80. No experience is required and full training and bespoke Brae clothing is provided.