By Jennifer Hoegg
The smile said it all.
For Greenwood’s Erin Sproul, sitting on the back of Calvin the pony is a kind of freedom she has never experienced before.
The 15-year-old has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which limits her ability to use or control her arms and legs. She can’t speak, eat food by mouth and has some developmental delays.
Her mother, Tina Sproul, said the teenager is a “social butterfly.”
“She loves being involved with people, she loves being the centre of the attention, she loves school, she loves activity,” Tina said. “Most of all, she loves being at the barn.”
However, being in a wheelchair with limited movement can make visits to the stable where her mother and sister Halie ride a bit intimidating for Erin. Spending time in the a new, Kings County-based riding therapy program while Tina, a Free Spirit Therapeutic Riding Association board member, volunteers in the barn and riding ring, boosted her confidence.
“Now we go in the barn and if she is too far from our horse, she’s hollering at me to get closer so she can pet him,” Tina said.
“And then we finally managed to co-ordinate enough appropriate people to get Erin on the horse for the first time. She was absolutely thrilled.”
Erin requires more volunteer support than most of the participants, her mother explained. On the pony, Erin was higher up and with less support than she usually has, plus she was experiencing a way of being in the world many take for granted.
In her wheelchair, Tina pointed out, Erin’s usual motion “is a very smooth backward forward movement. Being on a horse gives her a sense of movement in the way movement is supposed to be happening.”
Riding sessions may help develop the teenager’s core strength and stamina, which would give her more control of her arms.
The benefits go beyond the physical. Tina said her daughter is trying to say “walk on” and “whoa” to control the horse and to do the exercises on horseback she sees other participants do.
“She was vocalizing – practicing even the muscles in her throat, her tongue – and the cognitive skills to all of it,” Tina said. “It’s a lot of things at once.”
For Erin, it was a rare chance “to be part of the group, rather than sitting on the sidelines and watching the group,” Tina said.
“Erin is an interesting gal,” coach Evelyn Fraser said. “She’s very keen and the benefits I can see (include) core strengthening.
“The smile that you get out of this little girl when she is even at the barn is unbelievable,” Fraser added.
In a short, 12-week pilot project, the association has brought many smiles and touching moments to participants, parents, volunteers and coaches.
Sixteen children and young adults from five counties have been part of the fall session. Clients include others with cerebral palsy, as well as autism, Down syndrome, eating disorders and developmental delays.
Fraser, who has been involved in therapeutic riding for 20 years, is thrilled to be back in the ring.
“It has been amazing,” she said. “Just in the short time we have been back into it, I am blown away by these riders and how they have developed a trust for me as a coach, for the volunteers… and for the horses.”
Progress for many of the participants has been impressive, Fraser added.
“I have five kids walking off lead… they’re steering and they are in control. I’m starting to introduce (a few) to how to do a rising trot. The strength that they are building to do this just blows my way.”
Two previously non-verbal riders have been giving commands to the animals, she said.
“Even if it’s just the words ‘walk on’ and whoa.’ One little guy’s mom has told me he has become more verbal at home.”
The pilot project was to see if there was a need here and to see how it was received. The response, she said, “has almost blown us away.”
One young man was terrified of animals, Fraser said.
“I thought it would be a challenge to get him to stay in the arena, but he got on the first day and loves it.”
It isn’t just about being on the animals. Spending time learning horsemanship can also play a role. It takes special horses to make the program run smoothly.
“The horses have to have a certain temperament and be sensitive to their riders’ needs,” said Julie Glaser, development co-ordinator for the group.
“If a rider with certain physical needs becomes unstable, Bolt (one of the horses) he’ll just stop. He doesn’t want you to fall off.”
The horses are run through a desensitization program so they are all quiet and safe, said Alissa Cue, an Equine Canada coach who owns the host horses and barn, Rohan Stables in Aylesford.
Special people and the right timing have helped the association take off quite quickly.
Sponsorship from the provincial Department of Health and Wellness, Manulife and Sport Nova Scotia helped with costs of equipment, horses and barn time. The County of Kings contributed $5,000 for strategic planning, allowing the sessions to be run at a cost of $10 per client. More funding needs to be secured to continue the program next spring and to add a wheelchair accessible washroom and, hopefully, expand the program to serve a broader group of clients.
“It’s very resource-intensive,” Glaser said. “Horses are not exactly inexpensive creatures to be associated with.”
She said the association hopes to help seniors and veterans, as well as younger riders with special needs, and to develop a mobile unit to serve a broader geography. Additional volunteers are needed, too, as up to three helpers are needed for every rider as side-walkers and horse-leaders.
“We want to create something outstanding,” Glaser said. “Innovative, outstanding and remarkable. Therapeutic riding is already remarkable. It’s like a miracle every hour.”
For more information, to contribute or participate as a volunteer, contact Fraser, 680-6858, or Cue, 847-0176, or firstname.lastname@example.org
What is therapeutic riding?
Horse-related activities resulting in therapeutic benefit. Emphasis is put on learning functional riding and horsemanship skills for physical and developmental purposes.
Therapy: Helps clients in reaching physical, mental, cognitive, social, behavioural and communication goals.
Education: Helps clients with physical, intellectual, developmental, psychological and/or sensory impairments to achieve educational goals.
Sport, recreation, leisure: Emphasis on social and physical wellbeing and fun. Opportunity to develop para-equestrian athletes.