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Horses and hippotherapy

February 21, 2012

I visited the 27-acre facility of the Valley Therapeutic Equestrian Association (VTEA) in January. My first two planned visits h
The VTEA leased property at 3330-256th Avenue, Langley is the fourth site for VTEA. The 27 largely wooded acres has stunning views to the North Shore mountains. VTEA provides therapeutic riding for people of all ages who have a range of mental, physical or emotional to be cancelled because of the January snowfalls that were particularly heavy in the Fraser Valley. When I do manage to visit VTEA, pockets of snow still dot the ground and the horses wear thick blankets to keep warm. Brenda Singbeil, a warm, friendly lady who is a director of VTEA, a registered charity, greets me and introduces me to the staff, the horses and several clients.

VTEA started in 1986 and Pippa Hodge, a founding member, continues to play an integral role today. The number of riders participating in the program varies. In the fall, 98 riders were enrolled but with the colder weather the number dropped to the current 75. The youngest rider is three years old, one is in her sixties. Four paid instructors work for VTEA and upwards of 50 volunteers give of their time.

We start our tour in the barn where Centi, a Standard Bred, is being saddled up for her first rider of the day. Fifteen horses currently work at VTEA; a sixteenth, Star, is now retired at the grand old age of 35. Horses for the hippotherapy program are generally older, and have to undergo rigorous initiation and training before being accepted to the program. They must be gentle so as to accommodate riders who, especially when they first arrive, may have had little or no experience with horses and may be frightened. They must be patient as it takes time for the clients to mount and receive the necessary adjustments before they proceed. The clients may play basketball, bowl, do a beanbag toss or go through obstacle courses while on horseback and therefore horses also must be very calm. The horses also take their riders along a beautiful woodland trail and it is important that they not startle from sudden noises or visuals.

That first day, I meet Jovan, a somewhat serious, reserved eight year old boy from Abbotsford, and his mom, Jul. Jovan has been in the program since September and his mom has just signed him up for another session. Jovan is home-schooled and the trip to VTEA is his favourite time of the week. Knickers, his favourite horse, isn’t feeling well and therefore Centi, who has first gone through a warm-up in the big barn, is waiting beside a raised platform for Jovan to mount up. Jovan is hesitant at first, uncertain of this new horse, but after some gentle persuasion from the instructor Sandra and his mom, and with his two volunteer ‘side-walkers’ beside him, clambers on.

Jovan soon is beaming, giving high-fives and stretching from side to side as Sandra employs strengthening and flexibility exercises. After 10 – 15 minutes in the barn, Jovan on Centi, led by Sandra and flanked by the two volunteers, heads down the forest path and I take a few moments to talk to his mother. Jul says the program has worked wonders for Jovan by helping him manage his anxiety about animals. When Jovan started, he was very afraid of animals and Jul wasn’t sure he would get on a horse. But he did, and every week helps him gain new confidence. While he rides, Jovan is also working on building his core strength and improving his motor skills. Jovan just thinks it is fun. As they start to drive away after the lesson, I get a chance to ask Jovan, his cheeks pink from the cold, if he had fun. He nods yes. He tells me about the gluten-free candies that his mom has for him when he gets home.

Also called ‘hippotherapy’ which comes from the Greek words meaning ‘horse’ and ‘cure’, the program provides recreation, exercise and positive achievement for its clients. Hippotherapy has been shown to have very positive results for people with various conditions including cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism, epilepsy, brain injury, Down’s syndrome, various social or emotional conditions and learning disabilities. The clients often form strong bonds with their horses and for many it is their favourite activity of the week.

Next VTEA post, we meet some more clients.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 21, 2012 9:37 am

    I have always been interested in hearing about horses and therapy. Thanks for the informative article.

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