The Creston and District Society for Community Living’s (CDSCL) Therapeutic Riding Program (TRP) is such an integral party of the community it seems hard to believe it’s only been operating since 2005.
“More than just a pony ride,” is the way the program is promoted, and director Michelle Whiteaway describes it as “a community of people that includes instructors, riders, caregivers of riders and volunteers — and, of course, the horses, too.”
Operated under the auspices of CDSCL, which for many years housed and supported people with developmental challenges on what is commonly known as the Endicott Centre property and still continues to support individuals with developmental disabilities throughout the Creston community, the program was started by Sara Schmidt. It was Schmidt’s tireless passion that helped TRP become what it is today.
“Every year we seem to have more people with more to offer,” Whiteaway said.
TRP now has 38 riders who range in age from five to over 80. Most riders have some form of autism while others have challenges including Down syndrome, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy. One, Kootenay Lake writer Luanne Armstrong, rides as a therapy for her own particular challenge.
“I think it is wonderfully ironic that although I have been riding horses all my life, it was only after I was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis that I am learning to ride properly,” she told the Advance after winning a national riding competition recently.
While learning riding and horsemastership skills, people with mental, emotional and/or physical disabilities gain a host of benefits. Riders may participate for a variety of reasons — rehabilitation, skill development, fun and recreation — and may even compete. In order to meet each rider’s individual needs, their program is specifically designed for them. Therapists, the instructor and the rider itself are involved in customizing a program. Where space in the schedule is available, riders without disabilities can also participate.
Locally, TRP started out on a property in Canyon, but it has found a comfortable home on the Erickson Road property, which is owned by the Kootenay Region Association for Community Living (KRACL).
The TRP has a very active group of volunteers who help with maintaining the property — mainly Alex Nilsson and Terje Munkerud. They have cleaned moss off of the roofs of the buildings, worked to seal up the roof of the Rosewood building, which had leaked for years, and helped with cutting down dangerous trees. Lyn Kistner and his workhorse, Marty, have also cut down and removed several dangerous trees from the horse paddocks. CDSCL and TRP have also invested in a riding lawn mower so volunteers can easily mow the many lawns. The philosophy of TRP is to be excellent tenants.
Of course, the program relies heavily on having gentle, reliable, healthy and hard-working horses. Currently, seven horses work in the TRP, including one owned by Whiteaway, and Cupcake, who is under evaluation. Whiteaway said one horse is needed for every eight riders.
“Temperament is the main asset,” she said. “The horses have to be willing to please, easy to forgive and not pushy. They need to be well trained to respond to the riders and their aids.
“We really, really take care of our horses well. Our horses are very happy and they get four months off each winter as a reward for working hard for the other eight months of the year. They all love their jobs.”
The TRP relies heavily on the generosity of volunteers, local donations and the provincial gaming grant, which totaled $35,000 last year. Riders also pay small fees to help cover the costs of food and farrier services for the horses.
TRP doesn’t operate entirely on its own. It is an accredited member centre of a national association that provides accreditation of instructors, among other benefits.
Founded in 1980, the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA) is a registered charity that promotes challenge, achievement and empowerment for children and adults with disabilities through the use of the horse. There are now approximately 100 member centres across Canada providing high quality therapeutic, recreation, life skills and sport programs. CanTRA has also worked over the past 25 years to ensure an excellent standard of certification and education for therapeutic riding instructors. CanTRA is a member of the Federation of Riding for Disabled International (FRDI) and is recognized by FRDI as the only governing body for therapeutic riding in Canada.
While CanTRA as a national body acts as a resource for its members through certification, education and insurance, its strength lies in its local centres across the country. Each centre offers a program with a slightly different focus and many medical professionals work with CanTRA to ensure excellence in service delivery.
“The TRP has three certified instructors — Christine Ross, head instructor, Peggy Hawes, an assistant instructor, and myself, an intermediate instructor,” said Whiteaway. “Two more assistant instructors, Avis Hutchinson and Shayla Leacock, are in training and successfully completed their technical evaluation at North Fraser Therapeutic Riding Association in Maple Ridge at the end of March. ”
Judine Maki is an Equine Canada Instructor who teaches lessons for riders without disabilities.
Having more instructors will allow for further expansion of the program, if sufficient volunteers are available — keep in mind that for some riders three volunteers are needed, one to lead the horse and one on each side of the rider.
“Horseback riding is a fun and challenging activity for everyone and the Therapeutic Riding Program makes this activity accessible to children and adults with all forms of disabilities, be they developmental, physical, emotional, behavioral or social,” said Whiteaway. “It’s a way to discover a whole new world of adventure, freedom, responsibility, dignity and excitement. It is also a way to improve balance and coordination and strengthen muscles.
“Most importantly, it provides an overwhelming sense of accomplishment for everyone involved — riders, volunteers, caregivers and instructors.”