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For many struggling with a disability, the few hours a week they spend at the North Fraser Therapeutic Riding Association in Maple Ridge offer a respite from their often difficult daily lives.
For autistic children, petting and combing the quarterhorses and Welsh ponies can have a calming effect as they connect emotionally to the gentle beasts.
For those who may be paralyzed or have suffered strokes, the movement of the horse underneath their saddle can help stretch and work underused muscles, improving the rider’s core strength and balance.
For the wheelchair-bound, riding atop a proud draft horse offers them a new perspective on the world below.
But for all 85 clients the NFTRA regularly hosts, the simple joy of horseback riding offers them freedom, and happiness.
“Our riders have more abilities than they do disabilities,” says program coordinator Gay Conn.
And when they ride, they can leave those disabilities behind.
The NFTRA is moving to a new home Aug. 1, one that will allow the local association to provide more riding options for those who might not otherwise experience the thrill of riding horseback.
“The therapy options available are increasing and we want to start offering more equine assisted therapies,” says Conn.
Programs for seniors, young women, and an anti-bullying program for teens are being considered.
“The kids learn that if you can direct a 1,200-pound animal around, there’s no reason why a bully should push them,” says Conn. “It’s about building confidence and giving young people responsibility, which is huge at that age.”
The new 17-acre facility is on 132nd Avenue, next to the Maple Ridge Equi-Sports Centre, and features a 1,200-squre-metre covered riding arena, with an adjacent 10-stall barn for the association’s horses.
“It’s twice as big as current [riding arena],” says Conn.
The new site is easier to get to than the current location, north of Webster’s Corners, and is accessible by transit.
“We have riders coming from all over the Lower Mainland,” says Conn. “This will be much easier for them to get to.”
The association has been offering therapeutic riding for more than 30 years, and traces its roots to founder Tilly Muller, who began offering equine therapy using a pair of donkeys in her backyard in the late 1970s. After years of growth, the organization formalized itself as the NFTRA in 2003, and moved into its present location eight years ago.
“We’ve been around for a long time,” says Conn.
“It’s taken us a long time to evolve into what we are today.”
NFTRA offers a wide variety of programs to suit a range of riders. Safety is paramount; riders wear helmets and are accompanied by spotters while in the riding ring.
For some disabled riders, NFTRA offers a chance to return to the sport they love.
Among the NFTRA’s alumni is Paralympian Jennifer McKenzie, who came to NFTRA after being paralyzed in a horse riding accident at the age of 12.
McKenzie began competing in para-equestrian events in 1999 and represented Canada at international competition 10 times, including the 2008 Paralympic Games.
“She started her comeback here, and has been a fantastic supporter ever since,” says Conn.
The association encourages all of its riders to compete, something she says helps build their self-esteem.
NFTRA is looking for donations of two-by-fours, paint, and bell pole cedar bark mulch to help spruce up its new home.
The association is also looking for manpower, and will be holding a work party July 14 to help get the new facility ready.
“We want to make this place look loved again,” says Conn.