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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Miami equine program grooms business executives

An equine-assisted learning program helps CEOs and other executives overcome business obstacles.


Michelle Salerno has only known her student a few hours, but already has some penetrating insights into her psyche.

Salerno says Maria Carrillo of Miami, a 56-year-old sales coach for AT&T, is intimidated by ``powerful male energy.''

She asks Carrillo about her husband and father, looking for the root of the problem.

And how does she know all this? A horse told her.

Shakespeare, a 1,600-pound Arabian mix, helps Salerno teach sales professionals like Carrillo how to overcome fears about leadership or learn how to work as part of a team.

Salerno's conversation with Carrillo took place during an ''equine-assisted learning'' program at Hunting Horn Stables in Miami, where she conducts leadership training and team-building exercises using horses. Clients from big businesses like Sara Lee and AT&T pay up to $900 to find flaws in their leadership techniques.

Salerno said horses have been used before to ''train'' humans, but they're often used in work with children, gaining prominence as a therapy for autistic children. Salerno also does some similar work -- she's licensed to provide behavioral redirection training with children and families -- but the work she does with professionals is all her own.

Cathy Pareto, who runs her own financial planning and investment firm, Cathy Pareto & Associates in Miami, said the program has affected the way she works. A big take-away for her has been communication -- she's learned a lot about how much conveys to people with her body language.

Equine-assisted learning programs are based on the idea that horses can sense what a person is thinking and feeling. If the student is fearful or calm, angry or loving, a horse will react in a like manner, Salerno said.

''They are . . . mirrors,'' she said.

Horses don't care if someone is a CEO or drives a fancy car, she said. They don't listen to cajoling or threats. The intimidation tactics that might work in a business setting don't work here, she said. Working with horses forces people to think about the effectiveness of their own techniques with humans.

All that matters when a businessperson is standing in front of an 1,800-pound animal is raw leadership skill.

''However good you lead is how good that they'll follow,'' Salerno said.

Salerno wasn't always the corporate equivalent of a horse whisperer. Since 2004, she's been conducting customized emotional fitness training for corporations and individuals in her MPowerMentor programs. Before that, she was in software sales and management for 10 years.

The horse program is a relatively new venture. She started the program in August and did her first training session in October.

When Salerno started horseback riding with trainer Monica Gerritsen, she realized that many of her MPowerMentor techniques could be combined with Gerritsen's horse program.

Typically, Salerno and Gerritsen do two to four trainings a month, Salerno said. Ideally, she said, they would like to do two to three every week.

Rates range from $295 to $895 per day or per program, depending on what students want to do and the length of the program. There are half-day, full-day and multiday options.

In all the programs, Salerno assesses what the participants came in to work on, and gives each person a follow-up call a week later.

Salerno also offers a mastery program for advanced students who want to keep working on a specific exercise. Those one-hour sessions cost $150.

She and Gerritsen developed the leadership program, along with components that help with empowerment issues, team-building and redirecting children's behavior.

While other programs exist using horses for therapy or team-building, Salerno said the hands-on aspect of using the horses to teach leadership skills sets her program apart.

Participants in the team-building exercise groom the horse and take turns leading it around, making sure it doesn't eat grass -- which means it doesn't respect the leader -- and follows direction. They're instructed to lead the horse around a ring, getting it to speed up, slow down and turn.

They learn horses don't respond to touch or commands, but pay attention to body language.

''A horse isn't a puppy,'' Salerno said. ``It won't come if you stand and call it.''

While Salerno said the feedback she gets is unanimously positive, one of the participants in the team-building exercise wasn't so sure.

Carrillo, the sales coach who was taken aside when a horse shied away from her during an exercise, said she doesn't see how it affects her work.

She works from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days, she said, and while she was with the horses she was only worried about what her numbers would be at the end of the day.

Horses aren't relevant, she said, especially when she's being told that men intimidate her. She works mostly with men and has been married for more than 20 years.

Salerno later said she meant Carrillo is intimidated by situations out of her control, which Carrillo said she could accept.

In this economy, people need feedback and help now, Salerno said. They need personalized tools to help them overcome their obstacles, she said.

Horses provide the answers people need to help them change, she said.

Whatever people dream of becoming, she said, ``The horse makes you be it.''