When will people be back in the saddle at therapeutic-riding centres?

Therapeutic-riding centres offer children and adults living with disabilities opportunities for recreation and physical therapy. But COVID-19 is keeping many from the horses they rely on
By Mary Baxter - Published on Jun 11, 2020
Janine Langley, the executive director of the Sari Therapeutic Riding centre, with Glory. (Mary Baxter)

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LONDON — Julie Idsinga has muscle and joint stiffness caused by cerebral palsy and residual weakness from other health issues. As a result, she has trouble walking. For the past 10 years, she’s ridden at the Sari Therapeutic Riding centre, near Arva. Seated on the back of her mount, Glory, a twentysomething dark-brown Morgan-Standardbred cross mare with a wavy mane, Idsinga feels “a real sense of freedom.” 

Founded in 1978 by Syd and Jeanne Greenberg and named after their late daughter, the centre uses horses to provide its approximately 140 clients in the London region — children and adults living with disabilities — with recreation, social activity, physical therapy, rehabilitation, and life-skills training. According to the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association, horses’ complex movements stimulate postural and muscular reactions in a rider that can help people with disabilities improve mobility, balance and coordination, and muscle tone and strength. The association says that the close connection established with the horse and with the riding activity itself also help foster cognitive skills and support mental health. On March 18, such services ended as emergency measures came into effect to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Now, except for a skeleton staff of four, the facility — which normally runs seven days a week and experiences a weekly volume of 400 to 500 clients, family members, and volunteers — is deserted. 

Sari is not the only facility in this situation: across Canada, operators of therapeutic-riding centres are struggling with the safety and ethics of reopening as emergency measures lift, says JoAnn Thompson Franklin, president of the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association, which represents 60 facilities. “We’ve talked about different strategies as to how to get [riders] back in the saddle again, basically,” she says. “And it will require a lot.” 

According to the Ontario Equestrian Federation, the provincial government lifted some restrictions in mid-May, making it possible for lessons to resume as long as gatherings involve five or fewer people and social distancing is practised. 

Becky Mills, executive director of the Windsor-Essex Therapeutic Riding Association, says the provisions mean that clients who can handle a horse independently can now return. That’s about a third of the 120 people that were riding weekly at the McGregor-area facility.  

Benoit Dube, executive director of Hope Haven Therapeutic Riding Centre in the Beaver Valley, near Markdale, says that it began accepting independent riders June 1. “With the proper spacing [and time for sanitation],” he says, “the most that we can accommodate is probably five or six riders per day.” 

Riders who need the support of volunteers to lead and steady them while they’re in the saddle will have to wait longer, he says: “There’s no way we could bring them in safely.” 

Thompson Franklin says it’s “unfortunate” that the facilities are not yet able to provide riding sessions to those who need greater support: “Those are the riders … that appreciated it the most, because it gives them that freedom.” 

Typically, that support can include assistance mounting and dismounting, a volunteer leading the horse, and one to two volunteers offering the rider support on either side. The close contact is necessary to ensure the rider’s physical safety while on the horse, and it simply can’t be done in a way that meets social-distancing requirements, Thompson Franklin explains, adding that such  protocols are particularly important in therapeutic riding because many of those involved — including older volunteers — are among the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. “Those riders will have to wait until a vaccine is in place,” she says.

Leela Sharma, whose 20-year-old daughter, Madi, has ridden at Sari since she was six, thinks that family could play a role in reuniting her daughter with her lesson horse, Wyatt, sooner rather than later. She and her husband are willing to volunteer to be their daughter’s side-walkers to reduce the risk her contact with other people, she says. 

Sharma says that Madi, who has a rare chromosome disorder, as well as other health conditions, and can’t speak, is making do with family outings to local parks and swims in the home pool. But she misses riding. “Probably every day or two, she will grab [her riding] helmet and stand by the door, plunk it on her head, just wait,” Sharma says. 

It’s her only recreational outlet, Sharma explains, and its physical impacts have been profound: before she attended Sari, Madi could not walk without assistance: within six weeks of the regular activity, she walked independently. “One of the other big benefits of Sari for us was social interaction,” Sharma adds. “We always had to sort of facilitate friends for Madi.” At Sari, Madi developed a friendship on her own with another rider in her lesson. “Just last week, they [Madi’s friend’s family] invited Madi over to their farm to see their horses,” Sharma says. She acknowledges the risk COVID-19 presents to Madi but says that, as long as proper precautions are in place, she would allow her daughter to continue.

Janine Langley, Sari’s executive director, says it’s unlikely the organization will allow clients whose family members are willing to help return sooner. Fairness is a key aspect of a phased approach to reopening, she explains. Not all riders have family members in a position to help. “Some parents will be willing to do that; others won’t, for whatever reason — their own mobility or allergies to horses or whatever it might be,” she explains. “I think we just have to be a little careful, and we need to be slow and thoughtful.”

Right now, Langley’s greatest priority is to ensure that there will be a facility for Madi to come back to. Sari has had to cancel not only its lessons but also a summer camp for children of all abilities. She’s postponed fundraisers, too. These activities are how the centre generates the income to support its operations and its 20 horses, each of which costs $250 a month to maintain. A recent flurry of donations has ensured the centre’s short-term future, but Langley worries about what lies ahead. 

All the operators of these specialized facilities are worried about sustainability, says Thompson Franklin. Some centres have had to sell or “re-home” their horses on other properties, she says, adding, “They just have no funding.” 

Her association is trying to help its members by facilitating meetings to share ideas on how to survive, phase in operations, and fundraise. But many operators have had to cut back on staff. Sari has laid off 11 of its 15 employees.  

Idsinga remains optimistic that SARI will weather the crisis and welcomes a graduated return to operations. “I would so rather be extra cautious and protect my own health and everybody else’s by starting slowly again,” she says. 

For her, no exercise option compares to riding. “It’s such a unique motion,” she says. “It’s the warmth of the horse, but it changes things differently than any routine physio exercise can do.”

​​​​​​​This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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