For more than 15 years the Cariboo Chilcotin Child Development Centre (CCDC) has been bringing horses, their owners, volunteers and families together with Horsin’ Around, a program for children on the autism spectrum.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the program did not happen for two years, other than virtually through Facebook, so in July when the program returned in-person at the Trail Riders Arena, everyone was happy.
“We have 12 children riding six horses with three volunteers for each horse,” said Ruth Shaw, the FASD parent support worker with the (CCDC) who coordinates the program, on the last day during the morning session with the younger children. “We could have 100 children if we had the resources.”
If possible, the owners of the horses lead them, while the children ride and often local students help as well because they can obtain high school credits, although they have to know horses.
Children with physical disabilities are able to participate because there is a mounting block with room for a wheelchair.
All of the horses are older, including Coco, 37, who Shaw owns and brought out of retirement.
“She has been at most of the Horsin’ Around sessions over the years,” Shaw said. “We retired her two years ago because of COVID and she became a Facebook star, but we brought her back this year for one more time. The kids just love her and she absolutely loves the kids.”
Ava Haw said it was rewarding to volunteer her quiet old Appaloosa Pixie, 23, for the program.
“The change in the children was astounding to watch, from being afraid and withdrawn to becoming brave, confident, sitting straighter in the saddle and aware of their surroundings,” she said. “A lot of people say it is the movement of the horse that helps.”
Haw herself, has been partially paralyzed from the waist down since the age of 13.
“Trying to fit in as a teenager when you are different was difficult. When I rode a horse no one knew that I didn’t walk properly, I was the same as everyone else, no handicap. I wonder if this somehow applies to the children here?”
Haw witnessed one girl go from being scared on the first day to standing there waiting the second day to ride.
“About the third day the horse gave a shake, and she got worried, but look at her now, she’s sitting there, she’s paying attention and smiling.”
Another boy was riding the biggest horse of the bunch and Haw was impressed with his progression.
“He was hunched over at the beginning and is sitting up so tall now.”
Haw moved to the area a few years ago, but COVID hit so it wasn’t until 2022 that she brought Pixie to the program.
“I know Ruth through the horse community and the trick is to get quiet horses. It’s amazing what all of these horses have been doing.”
She said it would be great if the program could happen a few times a year.
Corrine Young has noticed her grandson Ty, 8, no longer chases the neighbour’s calf and tries to ride it after participating in two sessions of the program.
“The first time he was afraid and now you can see the difference. He’s bouncy and loves being with the horses. They have a calming effect on him,” Corrine said, but added owning a horse would be very expensive for them.
Mackenna Morey, supported child development consultant at the CCDC, said she was glad the program was in person again.
“There are so many amazing connections kids get with the horses by the end of the week.”