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Disabilities Fade on Back of Horse

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from the Cape Breton Post, Nova Scotia, March 27, 2006.

Horseback Therapy Does Wonders with Wide Variety of Problems

If horses could talk, what tales they would tell about their riders. Some are able-bodied, finely tuned athletes. Others are hampered by a host of disabilities. Oh what a dance they get into, horse and rider, muscles moving in a rhythmic duet even when the rider can't walk, can't talk or can't do some of the everyday things that people do.

On the back of a horse, these riders often take flight. Gone are crutches, wheelchairs and feelings of inferiority.

Riding instructor Stephanie Tate has seen this and more. She works at Maynard's riding stables as part of the Southlands Therapeutic Riding Society.

"I have had children with autism or autistic tendencies who will sit in a parking lot on the ground and cry their eyes out and yell and scream the first time they come to the riding lesson and by the end of six months, a year, two years, they are having full-on conversations with people. They have come out of their shell."

The litany of miracles continues. "I have had children, whom doctors have said will never get out of a wheelchair, end up using nothing more than a crutch to walk and they can interact and pretty much be as independent as anyone. I have had people who are deathly afraid of the horse eventually be able to do everything on their own with great confidence and find incredible joy in the horse."

All kinds of people ride. Those with cerebral palsy, autism, problems with fine or gross motor skills, emotional issues, spina bifida, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, Down syndrome, visual and hearing impairment, and some spinal chord injuries.

To say that Tate loves her job is a bit of an understatement. She would rather be doing it than anything in the world, even on days when the skies open up and pour their fury on the earth below.

On such a day, she and riding student Rachel Roberts, 15, braved the riding ring with Sprite, a gentle but spirited horse.

But first Roberts' mother, Debbie, carefully lifted her daughter out of her wheelchair for a session of stretching with Tate. Riding, she says, puts Rachel "on par with her peers. A lot of her friends ride horses. She has that common denominator with them."

The teenager with cerebral palsy sums up in three words why riding is so special to her. "I feel free." Sometimes, she leans over, pats Sprite and says, "Good boy." Sprite knows. He listens. He understands.

The Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association explains it this way: "For those riders who cannot walk, the horse is their feet, their vehicle of transport."

There is, however, one hitch. Sandra Evans, B.C. zone representative with the national association, says there are long waiting lists for therapeutic riding in the Lower Mainland. All five stables offering it in the area are backlogged, as are most of the nine other stables in the province with therapeutic riding.

The reasons are obvious. It's expensive to have horses and the trained staff to offer therapeutic riding. It generally requires a lot of fundraising.

There is also a perennial shortage of volunteers, which are in high demand in such a program. Each rider starts with three volunteers--one to lead the horse and one on either side to ensure the rider is safe. Evans, who operates a stable in Richmond, said experience with horses is not essential for volunteers, as most of the centres will train them.

Not every horse is suited to this type of riding. They generally need to have calm dispositions. Evans said the horses have to be incredibly sound. "We often have people trying to give us their 25-year-old beautiful faithful pet." That won't do. "These horses need to be healthy, sound and able to work. It's certainly not a retirement home, although we are often looking for horses who are a little bit older because they have the life experience that makes them a little less reactive."

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