Arion Therapeutic Riding Association

If you picture riding a horse through the beautiful Okanagan Valley, do you ever think past the romantic side of the fantasy to imagine the health benefits you’re getting? And what if you happen to have a disability? Is it possible?

At the Arion Therapeutic Riding Association’s farm, not only is it possible, but they know that horseback riding can generate health improvements in many children and adults affected by a range of disabilities. From autism and mental disabilities to those with limited physical abilities, riding is not only good for the soul but good for stimulating improvement as well.

According to Michelle Warren, riding program director at Arion Farm, because a horse’s gait mimics a human’s, riding helps stimulate a person’s core muscles and creates a natural movement in the hips – excellent for those in wheelchairs who might not otherwise get to exercise those muscles. “It’s fabulous for core strength, balance and stability. And if you’re going to exercise, you may as well get to exercise with a horse,” said Warren.

Thanks in part to a grant from the Central Okanagan Foundation, Arion is able to keep riding sessions affordable for most. “All of our riders go out with a leader and if they need physical support they have someone on either side of them so we rely heavily on volunteer support as well. “

With the help of a mechanical lift and a ramp, they are able to help those in wheelchairs on and off the horses in quite a simple manner.

But the benefits of therapeutic riding span far beyond just helping those with physical disabilities. For those with autism and other developmental disabilities, the results of therapeutic riding are equally as impressive. In addition to helping with posture, muscle tone and flexibility, it also helps with body awareness, balance, fine and gross motor skills and circulation. Many with autism are challenged with performing left-brain functions such as processing verbal information and fine motor skills. The therapeutic riding program for such clients includes a combination of games, specific riding patterns designed to stimulate the brain, and verbal commands.

“We’ve had children who hadn’t spoken for over a year,” said Warren, yet when they ride, being consistently reminded to talk to the horse by saying, ‘walk on’ or ‘whoa’ they have begun to verbalize.

The farm setting at Arion nurtures many other essential life skills such as concentration, compassion, trust, independence, friendship and socialization.

“Bonding is a huge part as well,” noted Warren, adding that upon arrival for lesson, the first thing riders do is go catch their horse. “Then they brush and tack the horse. Being able to handle an animal that weighs a thousand pounds is very empowering for the kids. Learning that it will listen to their words and come when they call it is great for their self-confidence as well.”

Some of the local schools are catching on to benefits of therapeutic riding and as such, Holly Womacs was out with the Kelowna Christian School last week, experiencing the benefits of being on a horse.

“This program here is incredible,” said her grandmother, Sharon Clausen, who stood on the sidelines and watched Holly ride through an obstacle course. “Everyone who works here is just so amazing.”

The smile on Holly’s face pretty much said it all.

At present there are 13 horses on the farm. With the cost of food, vet bills, stall mucking, etc., it averages out to $200 to $300 per horse to keep them. Without the grant from Central Okanagan Foundation, executive director Angela Maher estimates the cost of lessons would be nearly double.

While Arion owns some of the horses, most are on what’s termed a ‘free lease’ arrangement. “That’s where people will give us their horses to use for a few years then let us give them back. Being a non-profit, we can’t afford to have horses around that aren’t working,” explained Warren.

It’s also important that they have enough horses to do this demanding job. “They carry unbalanced riders and often get confusing commands. You can see the horse trying to listen to us as well as the kids,” said Warren, which is very tiring and demanding, “ so we can’t be using the same horses all day long.”

The Arion Therapeutic Riding Association offers therapeutic riding sessions for those with special needs as well as adaptive riding lessons for kids, adults and seniors. To find out more about what they do, visit their website at www.arionfarm.org or find them on Facebook.