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.
PRTRA has six “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.