Saturday, April 04, 2009

Unbridled passion for changing lives

Bill Hendricks, Sarah Donaghy and (foreground) Kathy Day help Lucas Beauchamp climb onto Joey for his riding lesson at PRDA.
John Gordon/Langley Times

By Brenda Anderson - Langley Times

Published: April 03, 2009 3:00 PM
Updated: April 03, 2009 3:31 PM

On a sunny, early spring afternoon, the air in Campbell Valley Park is crisp and fresh. The ground, still muddy in spots, has been churned up by the hooves of a dozen horses passing behind the barn and indoor riding ring of Pacific Riding for Developing Abilities.

Riders, taking advantage of a brief spell of fine weather, have been spending at least part of their lessons outdoors whenever possible.

The barn doors, looking east over the back of the PRDA’s 15-acre property on 208 Street, stand wide open to the bright day, releasing the comforting scents of fresh hay and warm horseflesh.

Wooden stalls line each side of the long enclosure, currently home to 19 therapy horses (though there is space for 23) along with a small tack room.

As he strolls through the barn and past the riding rings where lessons are given, Bill Hendricks, one of two PRDA volunteer co-ordinators, reels off stats about the charitable agency, which has spent the last 10 of its 36 years on this site.

PRDA runs on a $500,000 annual budget, which is funded through United Way grants (which they will lose within the next two years) B.C. Gaming, and community donations, Hendricks explains.

The first riders were GF Strong patients rehabilitating injuries. Today, they include people of all ages with a variety of mental and physical disabilities, and range from young children coming in for pony rides to elite Paralympic athletes.

It costs PRDA $1,700 each to provide its 125 riders with a 10-week session. Users pay $250 for 10, 30-minute lessons, and the difference is subsidized.

The riders, who range in age from young children to senior citizens, are supported by paid instructors and PRDA’s 160-strong team of volunteers, who also range widely in age. Sixteen is the minimum age to volunteer, but their is no limit at the other end of the spectrum, with people in their 80s taking regular shifts.

Some are already horse savvy, while others start out knowing only that food goes in one end of a horse and comes out the other, jokes Hendricks.

But he’s the first to admit, facts and figures don’t tell the real story of PRDA.

This is a place where lives are changed.

That truth is revealed daily in broad smiles and peels of laughter, even in the disappointed tears of a dressage rider who knows she’s capable of achieving more than she has on a given day.

It’s actually not all that unusual for young riders to cry when they first arrive at PRDA. Perhaps they’re fearful of the horses, or maybe it’s painful to stretch and use the different muscles required to sit and balance astride the large animals.

“Often, by the end of the session, they’re crying because they have to get off the horse,” Hendricks says.

A hydraulic lift and the availability of specially designed reins and saddles or sheepskin pads, which transfer the animal’s body heat and act like a heating pad, mean riders at every level of ability can benefit from equine therapy.

“There isn’t really a rider we can’t accommodate,” says Hendricks. “We just need their doctor’s permission.”

Somehow, even the horses seem to sense they are dealing with special riders and that they need to be gentler with some than with others.

PRDA receives a couple of calls each week from people interested in donating a horse, but only about 10 per cent of the animals are suited to the task.

People sometimes get offended if their offer isn’t accepted, Hendricks says, but it takes a pretty special horse to meet the riders’ unique needs.

“We try to find ones that don’t have the flight instinct. Most do; it’s just a matter of how far you can push it.”

When she goes out and look at a horse, PRDA’s head riding instructor Michelle Meacher takes along a bag of soft toys which she tosses at the animal to gauge its reaction.

“If the horse is up the wall, obviously it’s not going to work,” says Hendricks.

The ones that do make

it don’t fit any particular profile, he says. And the line of animals inside the barn, ranging from ponies to draft horses bears him out.

Like people, they all come with their own distinct personalities.

There’s Gimli, for example, a Norwegian fiord, which Hendricks describes as being like a typical five-year-old.

“No, I don’t want to do this and you can’t make me,” he mimics the horse, with a laugh.

Gregory, formerly a top dressage horse valued at $100,000, was donated to PRDA after suffering an injury.

“We’ve had horses from the movie industry,” says Judy Cocchia, who job shares with Hendricks.

One was used in westerns and was trained to play dead. If you touched its shoulder, it would drop to the ground and lie perfectly still.

“That one took a while to retrain,” she laughs.

Then there was the parade horse that could trot up and down busy Fraser Highway without batting an eye, but it couldn’t go into the park because it was terrified of squirrels and blowing leaves.

While the horses can come from anywhere, they have to not only have a great personality, but must also possess a certain instinct that is harder to pin down.

One horse seemed to sense its teenage rider was having a small seizure and stopped in its tracks.

“They are truly amazing animals,” says Cocchia.

Each rider is matched with a horse based on the size of the animal and how much trunk control the rider has. Inside the ring, they are accompanied by one to three volunteers per rider, depending on the level of disability.

Some only require a watchful eye, while others must be held upright on the horse at all times.

Riders, instructors and volunteers work together as a team to teach real riding skills, using proper terminology, explains Meacher.

Instructors might run their students through a series of games, such as ring toss, designed to improve strength, stability, balance and co-ordination as well as fine and gross motor skills.

The psychological and social benefits are tougher to measure, but they’re easy to see as the riders gain confidence and self-esteem with every session.

“The psychological and social benefits are huge,” says Meacher.

“It’s something unique they can tell their friends.”

They may not be able to run and play soccer and baseball or ride bicycles with their classmates, but horseback riding sets them apart.

“It’s their sport; it’s what they do,” Meacher says.

Often, it’s as therapeutic for the volunteers as it is for the riders.

We’re always looking for volunteers. The whole facility wouldn’t function without volunteers,” says Hendricks.

Among the names on the timetable posted just inside the main doors of PRDA are Sandra Funk and Lois Beall.

“It’s a happy place,” Beal says. “The horses are happy and the kids are happy.”

“No matter how I feel when I come in, I always leave feeling great.

“My friends don’t realize, you’re not giving a lot — you’re receiving.”

Funk, a six-year volunteer who comes twice a week, agrees.

“It’s my bliss,” she says.

Under the women’s watch, children have come out of their shells. Some, so scared or shy at the outset they won’t speak a word, are babbling throughout an entire session after a few weeks.

Funk recalls one particular girl who beat the odds.

“The first year I was here little Brook learned to walk. Ten years old in a wheelchair and she learned to walk from riding.

“I can’t talk about that too long or I’ll cry,” she smiled.

PRDA’s next 10-week session begins on Monday, April 13.

Anyone who is interested in helping out, is invited to call Hendricks or Cocchia at 604-530-8717. Visit for more information.

1 comment:

mike said...

thanks for posting