Staff and volunteers at the Richmond Therapeutic Riding Association are gearing up for a busy 2019 as they prepare to build a new arena and allow more riders to try horseback riding and progress to higher levels.
The program, a staple in Richmond for more than two decades, offers equitation lessons adapted for children with special needs or disabilities.
“Kids with special needs, often they don't have a lot of control over their life, at all,” said program co-manager and lead instructor Mélodie Gerbier-Violleau.
“So offering them this opportunity … for a short period of time they get to be in control of what they want to do. They get to tell their horses to stop, to walk, to turn right, to turn left … that’s huge for them.”
For three days every week, children on horseback ride through exercises in the covered arena flanked by a human volunteer on each side. Gerbier-Violleau devises lessons where children complete several tasks in a row, challenging their working memory and spatial awareness.
Kids get a physical benefit from riding, since the sport is a full-body workout. Gerbier-Violleau said she’s seen kids with cerebral palsy learn to walk with the help of riding lessons, since the hip movement on horseback mimics the human gait.
Then, there are the mental benefits that keep kids and parents coming back.
Many therapeutic riding clients are on the autism spectrum. That’s the case for 12-year-old Christian Higgs-Torres, who’s working on his posting trot aboard his favourite horse, Copper.
“It really helps me concentrate,” Higgs-Torres said of the riding lessons. “It helps with calming down my brain.”
His mother, Eréndira Torres Pina, is impressed with the difference the lessons have made in his confidence, his anxiety, his coordination and his speech.
“It’s been an amazing experience for Christian,” she said. “The horses don’t judge children, they just do their job.”
Torres Pina uses a portion of the $6,000 in provincial funding she receives annually for Christian’s autism therapy to pay the $40 fee for each lesson. She thinks it’s a good value, considering how much more expensive his speech therapy and physiotherapy is.
The lesson fees at Richmond Therapeutic Riding cover about a quarter of their operational costs. RTRA lessons cheaper than the roughly $85 for a private lesson a rider might pay at another barn because they’re subsidized by city and provincial funding.
Still, Gerbier-Violleau acknowledges cost can be a barrier for some families. That’s why staff are always applying for more grants, trying to secure more ongoing funding from government and private donors.
“It's very competitive,” said RTRA vice chair Bob Flynn. “There are a lot of really good charities out there looking for money.”
This year, RTRA is securing the rest of the money necessary to construct a new, smaller riding in front of their office. Two sponsors have pledged to match donations from members of the public to build the new arena, up to $100,000.
Right now, they share a massive indoor arena with more experienced Twin Oaks riders. The environment can be intimidating for new equestrians, Gerbier-Violleau said.
Having their own ring will allow RTRA to offer therapeutic riding lessons on more days of the week and in the more desirable after-school timeslots. The smaller space will also be better for RTRA kids to ride independently, without the lunge line tethering them to their coach.
This year, RTRA also wants to help their more advanced riders pursue higher levels of equitation and attend horse shows. The barn already does internal video competitions, which Higgs-Torres was excited about filming recently.
Board chair Melanie Stefiuk said she hopes some riders get the chance to attend an in-person horse show in Langley alongside other kids.
“Many of our riders rarely have the chance to compete,” Stefiuk said. “These competitions will allow them the opportunity to do so in a fun and safe environment.”
To that end, RTRA is looking for a new horse that’s been trained in more advanced moves to replace one that’s retiring. The ideal horse or pony will be gentle and patient, and also trained in walk, trot and canter.
RTRA is always looking for new volunteers. Those interested in volunteering, donating or suggesting a horse to join the program should call the office at 604-241-7837 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.