An in-depth look at the world of therapeutic riding

Victoria Ross has struggled with Cerebral palsy (CP) her whole life, but she hasn’t let this disability get the best of her.While there is no cure for CP, Ross has found a unique way of fighting back: therapeutic horseback riding.

Therapeutic riding uses horses and other equine-based activities to enhance physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and educational skills for people with disabilities. These include a range of disabilities from Down syndrome to Cerebral palsy.

Opening Gaits Therapeutic Riding Society Calgary is a charity comprised of dedicated volunteers who want to help those with physical and mental disabilities. Founded in 1998, Opening Gaits has been catering to those with disabilities with horses that are donated by various owners.

 Ross has been participating in therapeutic riding for almost 20 years and at first, she could not even hold herself up. Every couple of minutes, she needed to lie down on the horse and rest because it was exhausting for her to be in an upright position for long periods of time.

“It was a really hard struggle for her to keep her balance,” says her mother, Helen Ostrowski. “Now she’s at the point where she does the work herself; she rights herself when she starts to tip, which is immense. She was never supposed to do that.”Victoria Ross waits for her class to begin at Opening Gaits Therapeutic Riding Society, where she rides once a week.

Photo by Cheryl Russell

“I like it because it is fun,” says Ross in an interview.

Ross regularly rides a horse named Libby, who is an Opening Gaits favourite. Libby is a 25-year old bay and white Pinto who is owned by the therapeutic riding society.

“I like Libby because she’s nice, gentle, and fast,” says Ross.

Dr. Lauren Weber, a physiotherapist at Panther Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Centre, says riding can be very beneficial to the right participant.

“Being placed on top of a horse changes your base of support. When you’re in the saddle, your two points of contact are your ‘sit bones’. It alters more of your support system so it engages your muscles in your back and in your core as well,” Weber says. “It allows the central nervous system to kick in to get these muscles to form the right pattern in intensity and activation sequence to keep the participant upright.”

Produced by: Nicholas Aviles and Cheryl Russell

Therapeutic riding costs participants $200 for a one-hour session once a week for a six week program. Currently, Opening Gaits subsidizes $690 per rider per session. Sheila Wilmot, vice-president of Opening Gaits, hopes that funding from donations can help bring the cost down.

“We do need the financial backing to have this. It is our vision to be able to run the program one or two hours a day and be able to open our hands and our hearts to anyone who wants to ride. If we had our finances, maybe our riding wouldn’t cost as much as it does to a parent or to a rider that has to pay out to that.”

As for Ross, she will continue to ride for as long as she can. While she will forever live with Cerebral palsy, she has found a way to make the best of her disability.

crussell@cjournal.ca

To contact the editor responsible for this story; Ato Baako at abaako@cjournal.ca