Disabled children learn to ride high
Equestrian therapy proves to be a big hit
AN ASSOCIATION which offers equestrian therapy opened the first Riding for the Disabled Association challenge course for children with special needs in South Africa this week.
The South African Riding for the Disabled Association (Sarda) hosted the Countryside Challenge in Constantia for nearly 200 adults and children with disabilities.
Founded in Cape Town in 1973, Sarda now has branches in Sleepy Hollow in Noordhoek, Port Elizabeth, Durban, George and Gauteng. The notfor-profit organisation teams up with special needs schools, including Bel Porto and Vera School, to provide pupils with weekly customised lessons.
“Each rider has a lesson plan for the term,” said Belinda Thom, a Sarda riding instructor.
“Maybe one of the children would be working on steering. Another child would be working on colours. Another could be working on numbers. Another child might be working on actually trying to get some balance to sit up tall.”
Modelling the challenge course on the RDA UK Countryside Challenge, Sarda added an African twist by decorating the course with wired sculptures of the Big Five, flamingos and a pool. Bee Lukey, Sarda office and public relations manager, said the course gave riders “an opportunity to show their skills and the differences those skills have made in their lives to other people”.
Organisations which offer equestrian therapy claim horse riding lessons provide many benefits to riders with various physical and mental disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis.
According to the Community Association of Riding of the Disabled’s website, equestrian therapy can “improve balance, coordination, strength and muscle tone, while gently mobilising the joints”.
“Therapeutic riding also improves sensory processing, focus and concentration, the ability to learn concepts, and communication skills.”
The Western Cape Association for People with Disabilities reports that a global average of 15 percent of any given population has a disability. Based on that average, an estimated 562 500 people in Cape Town might have special needs.
Charlene Gallant’s 12-yearold son Jaden has spastic quadriplegia, a severe form of cerebral palsy caused by brain damage which affects the entire body. Sufferers often cannot walk and have stiff limbs and no voluntary control over their necks.
“For Jaden, he went without oxygen for a long time. I had a difficult birth,” said Gallant.
“He had stopped breathing and they had to take him out of my tummy. He came out coughing. I don’t know how long he went without oxygen, but it was severe enough that it caused severe brain damage.”
At the age of 6 or 7, Jaden took a few lessons with Sarda, but stopped due to transportation issues. For the first time in years, Jaden was back in the saddle at Sarda’s Countryside Challenge.
Hopeful that equestrian therapy will result in longterm benefits, Gallant intends to start bringing Jaden for weekly lessons.
“I equate an hour of physiotherapy to 15 minutes on a horse,” she said. “What I do notice is that when I do physiotherapy with him is you don’t see that flexibility that you get the minute he’s finished here.
“Even if it doesn’t do much for your child as far as stimulation or improvement, at least it’s something for him to do.
“It’s an activity where they get to go outside. They get to go on a horse. The feel of the horse, the smell, being outside – this is therapy in itself.”
The Sarda Sleepy Hollow centre in Noordhoek will also be hosting the challenge course from Monday to Sunday. Riders with and without disabilities are welcome to participate.
Volunteer David Hodgson, rider Carene Kindefu and volunteer Margaret Morgan at Sarda Cape Town’s obstacle course challenge at the Sarda centre in Constantia. Behind them is Charmain Higgins.
Rider Rayyaan Davids with volunteers Aniko Glass, Adrian Powell, Karen Basson and James Ball.
Children and adults living with disabilities prepare for the obstacle course challenge.