Horses are forgiving,” says Karen Nordin. It’s an observation that may not make sense until you visit her Yorkton ranch when the Parkland Therapeutic Riding Association (PTRA) meets. Riders with wide-ranging physical, neurological, and mental challenges find something healing when they learn to be close with a horse.
“If our clients tend toward aggressive motion or noises and kicking, these horses will forgive that,” says Nordin. “They also give little people size. When they are riding, they’re taller than anyone else. They give some of our clients a release from their wheelchair.”
Nordin’s riding arena stirs with the first signs of a riding night around six o’clock. Five horses are saddled by 4-H volunteers. These horses tend toward maturity. They have temperments ideal to the work they do.
Inasmuch as horses, both standard sized and miniature, and two Bernese mountain dogs allow, there is a restrained pace as more PTRA members gather, don helmets, and engage with the animals and the group’s coaches.
Nordin is a National Coaching Certification Program Level 1 Western coach. It is her job to prepare the horses and keep an eye on them while club members ride. “Our clients learn how to drive with the dogs and the minatures,” she says. “You have to take everything one step at a time.”
For many of the riders, actually mounting a horse comes after careful progress. “One of our riders would not ride when he first arrived,” says Nordin. “He would only kiss his pony. Now he’s riding.”
For Mitchell (no last names are used publicly for PTRA participants), the horse is the best part of the experience. Struggles in school due to undiagnosed Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) were making early adolescence very difficult. The riding arena has become a place where he can experiment with relationships and with physical environments at a pace that public school and other social settings can’t accomodate. Nordin’s dogs were a comfortable entry point for Mitchell and he has gained the confidence to ride and to participate in the group.
Mona Boszik has been the association’s therapeutic coach since the PTRA started in the mid-1990s. As the certified Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association coach, it’s her job to see how the riders adapt to riding with respect to their specific challenges.
“My goal is to help them ride to their highest potential,” she says. “Everything they do while they ride should be applicable to life and living. Looking up while riding translates to balance and walking. The skills they learn with the horse should make them more independent.”
Working with the dogs, driving the miniature horse carriage, or getting in the saddle, all require greater levels of extroversion and physical activity that stretch the abilities of each participant. The key is that the pace can change as necessary.
“Our goal is to give everyone the best ride they can have,” says Boszik. “They are not the same each week. It takes time and patience. Success is measured by the smallest steps. That’s what you take away.”
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