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Variety difference night and day

Therapeutic riding helps Alex Bartsch-Csillag to treat Down syndrome
Alex Bartsch-Csillag

At first, it was gut wrenching for Sonya Bartsch-Csillag to see her son Alex on a horse.

Alex has Down syndrome and horseback riding was supposed to be good for his therapy. It helps improve muscle tone, strength and posture in a fun, inclusive atmosphere.

As a special needs worker, the Maple Ridge single mother of three understood the therapy provided by the North Fraser Therapeutic Riding Association would help Alex, but to see him screaming and flailing away as he cried for his mommy tore her heart out. She thought she was being a bad parent by letting him continue.

Instead, she stepped back for five weeks and allowed respite workers to take Alex, who will turn five in March, to his lessons on Bentley, the horse he was assigned.

Now, 18 months later, Alex knows the routine, every Tuesday morning going to the stables, getting his helmet and belt on, walking to the riding ring, waiting for Bentley to be brought in, then going up the stairs beside the horse so Alex can mount him.

“Once he’s on Bentley, the look on his face and in his eyes changes. He takes the reins, he does high-fives with the volunteers. He tells Bentley to ‘walk on.’ It’s a beneficial program for him from so many perspectives,” says Bartsch-Csillag.

“To see him now in that ring he’s so confident and so happy. It’s a huge night-and-day difference.”

She wouldn’t, however, be able to afford the horse riding therapy without the help of Variety Club, which pays for two seasonal sessions of lessons every year for him.

“Being a single parent, to be ever able to think to add into the cost of riding doesn’t fit into the budget,” she says. “But then again, it’s absolutely essential to Alex’s continued progressive development.”

When she was growing up, Bartsch-Csillag would watch the Variety Club Telethon every February, never thinking she would ever need the organization’s assistance.

This 45th edition of the telethon will be broadcast on Global TV on Feb. 12 and 13.

Bartsch-Csillag cried after finding out before Alex was born that he had Down syndrome.

“I cried not because I was sad he had Down syndrome, but because I felt shocked and inadequate to raise a child with Down syndrome,” she says. “Even though I worked in the field, it was very differed being a parent, but I sucked it up, and it’s been a fabulous, yet bumpy, road. Alex has had a lot of potholes.”

Those bumps and potholes included five holes in his heart when he was born and being diagnosed with epilepsy. Last week, he had surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids.

“You think he’s getting better and then something else comes up,” says Bartsch-Csillag, who also has a son in Grade 10 and a daughter in Grade 7.

Through the Maple Ridge Community Foundation (Alex is Mr. August in the organization’s 2011 calendar), the active boy also goes for regular physiotherapy, does water therapy and takes swimming lessons in between watching episodes of his favourite TV shows, Gilligan’s Island and Happy Days.

He’ll start playing softball in the spring in a Maple Ridge Softball Association league for special needs children.

“Anything positive for Alex, I grab on to and don’t let go,” says Bartsch-Csillag.

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