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Volume 90, Issue 95

Tuesday, March 25, 1997



Riding therapy trots into success

©Jael Lodge
RING AROUND THE PONY. A group of children at the Special Abilities Riding Institute show off their ponies and their ability to ride

By Jael Lodge
Gazette Staff

Imagine a group of young riders proudly demonstrating their ability to handle their horses, walking and trotting in patterns around an indoor arena. Now imagine that those riders spend much of their time in a wheelchair. Or overcoming the obstacles of Down's syndrome. Or battling other mental, emotional or physical problems.

This is what happens every day at the Special Abilities Riding Institute [SARI] which is located north of London. Established in 1978 by Jean and Sid Greenberg as a legacy to their disabled daughter Sari, the school allows children and adults with a wide range of mental and physical disabilities, as well as psychological and emotional problems, to discover the enjoyment and benefits of horseback riding.

"There's a broad spectrum of benefits. For some it's social interaction and better emotional well-being," Kendra Martin, SARI's program director, says.

"Physical benefits come because of stretching and muscle development."

SARI is a member of the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA) and the Ontario Therapeutic Riding Association (ONTRA) and is one of 30-35 centres in Ontario. Riding therapy is increasingly accepted by the medical community and now exists in over 22 countries around the world.

In order for a student to participate, they must have a physician referral because of the nature of some disabilities and are then assessed by the SARI admissions team.

"One of our concerns is safety issues," says Kim Miller, a physiotherapist at Western who works with some of SARI's participants. "And if the child can fit comfortably on the horse." Annual assessment updates ensure that the participant's condition is not aggravated by riding.

Part of Miller's job is to discover what the prospective riders and their families hope to get out of the program. "In most cases their expectations are realistic – they know what's available." If riding is not an appropriate form of therapy at the time, Miller suggests that some time be given for the child to grow and then try again.

Jennifer Morphy, mother of one of the program's youngest participants, fully agrees and says that riding has become one of her daughter's most important activities. "She's doing things at SARI she couldn't do at physio[therapy]. She mostly likes it because of motivation – she's able to work things out for herself."

Morphy has also noticed physical improvements such as balance, mobility and strength in her daughter's legs. "She's calmer and has more reason to communicate. It's one of the most wonderful programs in the world for disabled children."

Providing a cheerful atmosphere is one of SARI's top goals. "It's a neat place to be," Martin says. "We try not to focus attention on behaviour but on a happy place."

In order to ensure safety, each horse has a leader and at least one sidewalker so that safety does not become a problem. The diligence pays off – SARI has never had a serious accident.

During the winter, classes are run in the evening with school groups coming during the day. Summer time brings an integrated camp which allows both disabled and non-disabled children to learn about horses, riding, stable management and other activities in a fun environment.

For those whose reduced mobility prevents them from riding, a driving program, complete with a pony, specially built cart and ramp allows them to still participate. Bringing all aspects of the community is something that SARI does very well. Its participants and volunteers come from widely-varied backgrounds and brings them together in a relaxed environment. Some volunteers are from a 'youth at risk' program; others are former participants who are able to come back and pass along the things they themselves have learned. Others include seniors, parents, local students and anyone who wants to lend a hand.

As a charitable group with only three paid staff members, volunteers form the heart of SARI. Fund-raising is an important part of the continuing operation of the program – the property was originally donated by the Greenbergs – and the indoor arena was built from a Wintario grant.

"We also have a lot of private donations from charitable organizations," adds Martin. "United Way is our biggest supporter." Small fund-raisers, the annual Ride-A-Thon and golf tournament provide other income.

The equipment and horses themselves are often donated. Many are older horses whose owners feel they are financially able to give to SARI, while a few others are purchased by the organization. All are accepted on a trial basis because a horse or pony that is quiet doesn't necessarily mean it is a suitable mount for disabled children.

There is a $10 charge per lesson though if there are financial problems, funding can be found so that all can be involved. Organizational issues aside, the true reasons for the program can be summed up by 10-year-old Melissa Brideau: "I like to ride because I like horses."

To Contact The Features Department: gazfeat@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright © The Gazette 1997