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01 Apr, Saturday
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Montreal Families

Kids can learn life skills from horses

In a large wooden building at Équitation Élysée in St. Lazare, six riders sit on horses, waiting for instructions from Jo Sweet, their coach and owner of the riding school. The horses, coats thick for the winter season, swish their tails. Sweet, standing in the centre, instructs the students to begin a trot. The riders nudge their horses with their heels and, one by one, the horses pick up their hooves.

For the next hour, the students — tweens and two moms — will practice various aspects of horseback riding and learn some important lessons about communication, patience and perseverance. As Sweet notes, “In riding, there are two athletes, the horse and the rider, and the two have to work together in harmony.” Riders need good muscle control to guide the horse as well as respect for the creature whose back they are sitting on.

Sweet, who has been teaching for 30 years, has her riders work all kinds of muscle groups during a lesson. While the students guide the horses around the arena, Sweet watches carefully and calls out the corrections: raise your knees, lean back more, lean forward a touch, lower the reins. As well, she’ll ask the students to raise their knees, point their toes, stretch their arms to touch the horse’s mane and tail, even stand up in the stirrups, all to build up the control needed to ride.

Horseback riding also demands intense concentration, adds Sweet. If you’re on sitting on a 1,000-lb animal, you had better keep your focus on what you are doing.

However, riding lessons go beyond the mechanics of moving with the horse. Novice equestrians learn how to brush and saddle the horse, clean its hooves and check for injuries. Caring for and working with the animal helps create a bond between the horse and the student.

What many families may not realize is that the physical and mental benefits of horseback riding can be had for an affordable price. You don’t need to own a horse and at Équitation Élysée, it costs $350 for 10 lessons, which is comparable to some music lessons. And minimal equipment is required – you can wear sweat pants or jeans. “Helmets are a must,” adds Sweet, “but we provide them when people are starting out.” (Purchasing a helmet costs between $50 and $100, and must be approved for horseback riding.) Riders need to wear shoes or boots with a small heel — and the footwear will get dirty!

Dominique Barsalou, who lives in N.D.G., takes lessons with her 10-year-old daughter Anne, who has been riding for four years. They love coming out to St. Lazare on the weekends, to what Barsalou calls “a pocket of quiet.” Riding allows them time to focus on something other than work and school and provides a relaxing workout for mom and daughter.

Sweet, who has also taught teenagers with behaviour problems and learning disabilities, says riding offers many benefits to children with special needs. One of her students is 7-year-old Ian, who has Asperger’s, a mild form of autism. His mother Jennifer recalls Ian’s first lesson. “He often squints when he meets people for the first time, but when he looked into that horse’s eyes, his face just softened. He made some emotional connection.”

When asked what he likes about riding, Ian grins. “It’s easy,” he says. “And I like trotting.” Jennifer notes that the riding lessons are probably the most ‘fun’ form of therapy for Ian and she will likely enroll her twin boys – who also have autism – when they get a little older. (For more information on riding as therapy, see the sidebar.)

If your child has been begging for a pony or riding lessons, you can always try the sport via one of Sweet’s group parties (such as for a birthday). Participants learn about taking care of horses and how to saddle them up. Of course, guests get a riding lesson as well! Many riding centres offer summer camp programs as well, so there are many ways to get “back in the saddle”. Tally ho!

Links and resources:

A riding centre in St. Lazare • (514) 941-2959

Therapeutic riding centre near Huntingdon, Qc • (450) 264-0282

Centre Équestre des Milles Iles in Laval offers riding lessons on ponies for children as young as 3 • (450) 622-3033

Le Poney-Club de Blainville specializes in younger riders, starting at age 3 • (450) 433-3909

The Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association

An organization that sets the standards for riding centres across Quebec. Certified centres offer qualified trainers, adhere to strict safety procedures, and take exceptional care of their horses. The site lists certified centres by region.

The healing power of horses

Therapeutic riding is defined as riding instruction adapted for individuals with disabilities. Since 1990, Lucky Harvest, located near Huntingdon and about 75 kilometres south of Montreal, has offered lessons to people with a range of conditions such as Cerebral Palsy, Down’s and Rett Syndromes, neuromuscular disorders, post-traumatic brain injury, autism, ADHD, and cognitive disorders.

“We look at the whole child,” explains program coordinator and instructor Debbie Wilson. “We develop a program that addresses his or her physical, social, cognitive and emotional needs.” For example, riding can be a wonderful form of therapy for individuals who use wheelchairs, since sitting on a horse engages the abdominal, leg, and pelvic muscles in a way that simulates walking.

One-hour lessons cost $30-35 and include time for bonding with the horse through grooming and saddling up. Lucky Harvest is a non-profit organization and works with clients of all ages. The centre was the first in Quebec to be certified by the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA). For therapeutic riding, Wilson highly recommends working with a certified riding centre, to ensure the trainers are aware of any contra-indications of certain medical conditions; there are some cases where an individual should not ride. For that reason clients should have a doctor’s referral.

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