Have you ever stood beside a horse that is 16 hands high? Or, braver yet, sat upon a horse that is 16 hands tall? A horse's height is measured in 'hands' which is a measuring unit of 4 inches. The horse is measured from the ground to the highest point of the withers. Buddy, is one of the six horses at Powell River Therapeutic Riding Association (PRTRA). He works with adults and children. He’s a gentle Appaloosa and one of PRTRA’s biggest horses. At 16 hands tall, Buddy is enough of a horse to make an adult hesitate but Jacob Neath, a young teenager and regular rider at PRTRA, is neither fazed nor concerned. Every Wednesday morning, he climbs on Buddy’s back and they spend half an hour together out on the trails that meander through the PRTRA grounds. “Buddy is a great horse,” he said. “He’s nice and gentle.”
Jacob is just one of many children and adults who attend daily and weekly classes at PRTRA’s riding arenas for exercise and fun. They all come to the programs with different experiences and challenges. But, the one thing they have in common is they all start out slowly. The experienced trainers at PRTRA know how daunting horses can be to newcomers. It is not uncommon for first time riders to admit they are afraid of horses, but each mare and gelding chosen for PRTRA’s riding program is a proven, gentle steed, which helps foster confidence and dispel fear.
Jacob started riding when he was only four years old. Over the past 11 years, he has ridden five different horses, graduating onto larger and more challenging horses as he’s grown up. His longest relationship was with Peppi and he really liked that horse. Now a teenager, he’s been riding Buddy for just over two years. “He’s my best horse,” he said with a solid nod. “I always look forward to riding Buddy.”
Last Wednesday, Jacob was at the stables early. He’s been attending PRTRA for so long that everyone knows him; he’s their “all weather” rider as nothing daunts him. “Rain, snow, I don’t mind it,” he said. He arrives properly attired with riding helmet, gloves and the right foot wear. “Boots are important because they keep your feet safe,” he said. Buddy is saddled and led into the indoor arena by the volunteers. Buddy sees Jacob and nickers. Jacob gives Buddy’s nose a stroke and deftly climbs up and onto his back without a concern. Being on horse back makes him feel good, he says from the saddle. “I feel competent and empowered.”
After a leisurely turn around the indoor arena, Jacob and Buddy meet up with another horse and rider and together the group heads out onto the pathways that surround PRTRA grounds. Each rider usually has one to three volunteers making sure the rider is firmly seated and not in any danger. When Jacob started riding, he had several volunteers helping him but now he only has one horse handler. He’s no longer a novice. He knows what he is doing and he is in charge. “I say “whoa” to make Buddy stop,” he says while demonstrating. “And I say “walk-on” to get him to move.” Again, he demonstrates. Buddy, all 16 hands high, moves at his command.
According to Jacob’s dad, Chris, horses are not the only animals Jacob loves and dotes on. At home, not far from PRTRA in Paradise Valley, Jacob’s family has an acreage. He hopes to have a horse, one day. Meanwhile he has some steady companionship with Henry, his great pyrenees, and Penelope, his pure white cat. “But I am still hoping to get my own horse one day,” he said.
Upon their return to the indoor arena, head instructor Shannon has some games ready for the boys and horses to play together. Jacob is keenly interested; he says he likes this game. “It’s the one where you get to count your horses’ movements,” he said. “It’s a challenge for me to do better than last time.”
After his ride, Chris is waiting to take him home. Jacob is happy with his day’s accomplishments. With his own horse on the horizon and Buddy to rely on every Wednesday, Jacob is satisfied, for now.
“I’m really proud of Jacob,” Chris said. “And it pleases me so much that he loves horses as much as I do.” Maybe that’s why Jacob is pretty confident his family will be boasting their own horse one day, real soon. Until then, the family has decided to take Buddy and Liam for the summer; they will feed them and enjoy their company, a perfect way to get ready to own their own horses.
At the heart of every organization is its volunteers - most people would say it’s the volunteers who give the organization heart. Volunteering is an act of selflessness and love and those who regularly show up to help out others are held in high regard by community members. But Carol Hamilton, a veteran volunteer helper at Powell River Therapeutic Riding Association (PRTRA) has something else to add to the equation. “Volunteering is a two-way street,” she said. “I have always loved horses and by volunteering with PRTRA, I can combine my love of horses with my passion for helping others. So there’s a little selfishness in there, too.”
Carol has been with PRTRA since the organization’s inception in 1991. At that time, she was chair of the Model Community for Persons with Disabilities, working alongside board member Daphne Wilson. “We wrote a letter of support for PRTRA,” Carol said. “And then we helped where we could to get it started. I began by volunteering during my lunch hours and I’ve been volunteering ever since then. I just really believed in its mandate, in providing great therapy to people with disabilities in Powell River.”
As a side walker, Carol walks beside the horse, holding the rider’s ankle and making sure the rider is safe and well seated. “What I enjoy is watching the delight of the children and the improvement in demeanour and ability, especially the students that continue with the program for a few years,” she said. “Some students have stayed for 12 years and more. That says a lot. Regardless of weather, if it’s raining or sunny or even snowing, we’re out there on the trails. Riders and volunteers, together.” And with COVID on everyone’s minds, Carol says it’s pretty much business as usual now at PRTRA. “After shutting down last spring, classes have gradually been reintroduced so COVID hasn’t really put a big damper on PRTRA’s activities,” Carol explained. “The classes are a bit smaller but everyone wears masks, uses hand sanitizer and distances appropriately. Otherwise we are outside, socially distancing and enjoying the freedom of being amongst horses and friends.”
On this particular morning, Carol arrived at PRTRA at 9am. Two young boys were coming for their riding class and Carol and staff were there ahead of time, ready to help. The first lad gets on his horse, Desi, and heads off with his volunteers for a loop around the indoor arena. Then, the second fellow mounts his steed, Zora, with no problem, and once settled in, swings Zora’s head around to follow Desi. After an initial short walk indoors to warm up, everyone heads outside into the cool February air. The beautiful pathway that weaves around the PRTRA grounds is well tended and meanders through the forest that surrounds the arena. There are surprises on the pathway, placed there by PRTRA staff, who use the additions as teaching props.
Wednesday’s riders enthusiastically search for Waldo and greet the woodland creatures, butterflies, miniature cows and sheep that peek out from foliage and sit atop stumps along the path. They were encouraged to use commands to prompt their horses and to stop at all crossings. “The instructors use the walk as a learning experience and we all help build on past experiences that help the riders remember about safety, for example,” Carol said. “Or to help build vocabulary skills.” Each class lasts half hour. “And the weather, of course, determines what we do that day, too,” Carol said. “When it snows we stay inside.”
There is a great deal of learning and processing going on for everyone over the time spent together. “I am there as a side walker to make sure the child or adult on the horse is safe, to read their body language, to learn to communicate with them so we know they are comfortable and happy with their experience,” Carol said. “But volunteering isn’t a one-way street. Whatever we give to these riders, they give back so much more. It is the rarest and most wonderful gift to see a person blossom over time and learn to sit on the horse better, or give commands better, or have more confidence. But as I watch them grow and change, I realize I am learning and growing and changing too, so it’s a beneficial relationship for all of us. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
PRTRA’s stables and grounds are located in Paradise Valley next to the Open Air Farmer’s Market. For more information on their programs or to be a volunteer, you can check their website, www.prtherapeuticriding.com or contact Annie Racine at 604-485-0177. Training is provided and no experience is necessary.
Be safe and be kind, especially to animals. Merry Christmas from Ben and the Gentle Giant.
Ben is a boy with an affinity for animals. Liam is a 25-year-old Belgian quarter horse with Powell River Therapeutic Riding Association. His nickname is Gentle Giant; he is big and calm and likes kids. When the pair met through PRTRA’s riding program, it was obvious the two were meant to be together. The relationship is going into its second year and is still going strong; there’s a visible, loving bond between child and horse.
Ben was introduced to PRTRA three years ago through his elementary school principal, Jasmin Marshman. She thought Ben would benefit from PRTRA’s programs, the outdoor exercise and the calming companionship the horses provide. Riding a horse has so many benefits including developing muscle strength and endurance, improving posture, balance and coordination. It is also great for expanding social skills, aiding with communication and growing a child, or adult’s confidence. Ben’s mother Ocean readily agreed that Ben might benefit from a weekly ride. Ben was introduced to PRTRA staff, had his assessment and was signed up. When Ben first started riding, he was nervous to get on the back of a horse. So the PRTRA instructors wisely chose Tekida, a small Arab for Ben to ride. As his confidence grew and his horsemanship skills developed, Ben was introduced to Liam. It was quite a change and it was also love at first sight.
Liam is a pro at making everyone feel comfortable. He has lived on site at PRTRA grounds in Paradise Valley for ten years now and has provided up to ten rides a week for kids and adults who take part in PRTRA’s programs. Ben was eight when he first met Liam and when they stood side by side the young boy barely came up to the horse’s withers. Even now at 11 years of age, Ben is dwarfed by the big, gentle Liam, but he’s not at all afraid. He climbs on Liam’s back, whispers some words of encouragement into his ear and off they go. You can see Ben is comfortable up on Liam’s wide back. He settles in and moves with Liam’s rhythmic plodding, chatting to the volunteers. You can almost feel the tension dissolve with each hoof step and it is obvious that Ben loves Liam and trusts him completely.
Every Thursday morning, Ben arrives at the stable and gets geared up for his ride; helmet, belt, boots and gloves. Then, securely seated on Liam’s broad back, supported by side walkers and a horse handler, Ben and company take a slow, peaceful walk around PRTRA’s forested grounds. There are surprises along the path, two miniature cows, a colourful family of ducks lined up along a log and Ben’s favourite, the red and white striped Waldo.
Ben likes the regularity of meeting up with these woodland friends so when Waldo went missing earlier this year, it bothered him. For weeks, the familiar little fellow wasn’t popping his head out from some unexpected spot, but one day in late November Ben’s instructor Shannon alerted him. “Watch out for Waldo,” she said. It didn’t take long for Ben to find Waldo, he was hanging out with a giant butterfly in a fir tree just past the paddock. “There he is, I see him,” Ben called out, and laughed. It was good to hear, and it was obvious Ben was smiling, but no one saw it because of the masks.
While preparing for Ben’s ride at the PRTRA stables, all staff were masked up, distancing and using hand sanitizer. This time last year, no one imagined what November 2020 would look like, a volunteer said. For months, PRTRA was closed to the public and only this fall have their doors been open. During this time, Ben missed Liam and often came to the stables to see him and check on how he was doing. In September, when he was told he could rejoin the program, Ben was very happy. Happy to see Liam again and happy to go for his walks through the forest, even if he had to wear a mask.
Ben isn’t a person of many words but his energy and confidence exude a sense of well-being and contentment when he’s on Liam’s back. Riding a horse increases core body strength and Ben has become a stronger rider since starting the program, the instructor attested. As well, his love of animals gave him a connection to Liam that was reinforced weekly during his rides. Recently Ben was told he would be switching horses, upgrading to a livelier companion. He took the decision in stride, he’s feeling pretty confident now and ready for a new challenge.
Because this is the holiday season, it seemed fitting to have Ben give Liam a Merry Christmas surprise visit. PRTRA staff, all masked according to COVID protocol, lovingly decked Liam out in a fir and gold ribbon garland and Ben popped a pair of reindeer’s antlers onto Liam’s head. Then for a brief moment Ben pulled off his mask so this very special photo could be taken and we all got to see Ben’s magnificent smile. That smile says happy holidays everyone, stay safe and be kind, especially to animals.v
Everyone was wearing a mask except Liam.
“Meet it and beat it,” is the mantra Heather Dyble has used since she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis twenty-seven years ago. It has served this gutsy woman well. Despite her debilitating disease, using grit and determination, she has not only found ways to halt the deterioration of some of her motor functions, but also to improve them. Sometimes she needs a little extra help.
At first she tried different exercises, including Tai Chi, but her balance continued to spiral downwards. She would not give up. At that time, she walked with two canes or pushed a wheelchair, which she refused to use in the conventional manner.
Eight years ago, a physiotherapist at an MS support group meeting suggested Heather try therapeutic riding. Equine movement is multidimensional. It is variable, rhythmic and repetitive. The horse provides a dynamic base of support, making it an excellent tool for increasing trunk strength, control, balance, building overall postural strength, endurance, addressing weight bearing and motor issues.
Every week since then Heather has ridden a series of different horses. In the indoor arena she walks up a gentle ramp until she is high enough to mount the horse. A volunteer leads the horse and two more volunteers walk on either side to support Heather. Once settled in place, Heather tells the horse to “walk on” to where the riding instructor performs a safety check on the tack and ensures Heather’s posture is correct.
Heather and two other riders and their teams ride around the Therapeutic Riding arena to warm up while the instructor watches to be sure everyone is comfortable. Heather has tried several different saddles, but the most effective is a sheepskin. The warmth of the horse and its rhythmic movements help relax her tight muscles so she is better able to strengthen her core and thighs.
Outside the Therapeutic Riding arena the team rides along the quiet, winding forest trails lined with mosses and ferns, smelling the fresh air and the cedar and hemlock boughs on the towering trees. It takes a half hour to circle the property which at different times is used by the Powell River Trail Riders Equine Club, Farmers Market, and Archery Club, so there is much to look at. Although mostly flat, some trails go up and down gentle slopes so Heather is constantly correcting her posture.
All this has definitely been worth the effort. Heather’s gait has improved enough that at home she walks unaided. This is a great freedom!
Heather credits therapeutic riding with much of her success. “I really appreciate, respect and admire the efforts of the staff and committed volunteers managing and directing the program,” she said. “I am determined to restore my balance.”
Heather Dyble’s success is but one of many achieved by the Powell River Therapeutic Riding Association’s programs. Riders with physically emotional, social, and learning challenges receive multiple benefits. It is an empowering form of therapy.
In addition to the Adult Riding Program, of which Heather is one of fifteen plus participants, the Powell River Riding Association serves more than 60 riders each week, from Preschool to Grade 12.
As a side-walker for my daughter Rebecca I’m able to watch her ride Liam on a weekly basis and each time she rides, I am filled with such gratitude! I’m thankful for the joy of watching Rebecca’s smile as she towers above me mounted on such a grand horse. I’m so grateful for all the staff and volunteers at Powell River Therapeutic Riding Association who make it possible for Rebecca to participate. I am extremely appreciative of all the individuals, businesses and organizations that support PRTRA through their financial contributions and donations. But I’m most grateful for Liam.
Liam is a magnificent horse to look at, but it’s his spirit that dazzles me the most. Walking beside him, it would be easy to be intimidated by his size and strength as he carries my precious daughter on his back. But his gentle presence is incredibly calming and he makes it possible for me to relax and enjoy Rebecca’s experience.
Rebecca does not use words to communicate, but her pleasure is obvious from her smiles and laughter when she rides Liam. Due to the nature of her disability, Rebecca can often seem “lost” and disconnected from what is happening around her. When she is riding Liam she is calm, very focused and aware. She has become such a confident rider now that she often looks around, appearing to take in the beauty of the trees along the trail. There are very few physical activities Rebecca is able or willing to
participate in. Her physical position on Liam and her body’s motions throughout the ride give her opportunities for movement she would not have in any other area of her life.
Without Liam, I’m not sure Rebecca would be able to ride. What a gift to be able to have this experience in my daughter’s life.
PRTRA has eight “equine therapists” who are the backbone of our therapy program. These horses are chosen for their gentle characteristics and tolerance for the work they are doing. They are a big part of our program and must be carefully cared for to ensure we can continue to provide our important service to the community. If you would like to donate towards the care of these special horses, please click above.