Graham Curnew didn’t intend to spend his life teaching kids with disabilities how to ride horses. He didn’t want to volunteer when his dad dragged him to an evening class with Manitoba Riding for the Disabled Association. He didn’t even ride horses.
The most exposure he’d had to riding was as a kid on a pony in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park.
But the class was short one helper that night, which meant a young boy with Down syndrome couldn’t ride. So after a short tutorial, Graham became a “side-walker” — a support person who walks beside the horse.
“I’d had no experience — with horses or dealing with people with any particular situation like that,” said Graham, who grew up in Winnipeg. “I just fell in love with this little kid.”
At the end of the evening, the boy thanked Graham and gave him a big hug.
“I was done,” Graham said. “I went back every week after that.”
Thirty years later, he continues to volunteer at Manitoba Riding for the Disabled Association (MRDA) as a certified instructor with the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association. He has also learned to ride.
MRDA is an adaptive horseback riding program for kids with mental and physical disabilities. It operates out of West Wind Stables in Oak Bluff. Certified therapeutic riding instructors work with volunteer physiotherapists and occupational therapists to help the children learn to ride and gain physical, mental and social benefits in the process.
Each child has a team of three helpers. One person leads the horse and two walk beside to ensure the rider’s safety and encourage them to participate in the class, whatever their ability.
“Our policy is we’ll try not to turn any child away as long as we can put them on a horse safely,” Graham said.
The kids are assessed to see what their specific challenges are, and then Graham tailors his classes so each child benefits from the evening’s activities.
He explained that at a walk, a horse’s hips work very much the same as a person’s hips. The movement transfers up into the child and moves their hips in time with the horse’s walk. It helps trains the brain to understand the motion of walking.
Riding helps strengthen the child’s core muscles as the volunteers encourage them to sit up straight in the saddle.
Social aspects are also important. The child always rides the same horse and builds a bond with it.
“Once they’re assigned to a horse, that’s their horse and don’t try to tell them any different,” Graham said.
Each kid also has the same team of people working with them, often for years. The consistency is important, Graham said, and volunteers are told as much.
As the kids begin to trust their team, the more withdrawn will sometimes start to edge out of their shells — even if it’s as simple as telling their horse to “walk on.” For non-verbal kids, perhaps they grunt or develop sign language.
“Then that’s huge. That grunt means ‘walk on.’ So, the fact that they’re trying it, you know, we have an accomplishment there,” Graham said. “We have to adapt to each situation, and whatever works for the child to communicate.”
“Do you see automatic results? No. But sometimes the littlest thing is a major step forward for a particular child.”
Riding night is a special night for many of the kids, Graham said. Many of them, despite going to ‘regular school,’ can’t participate in ballet or hockey like their peers. This gives them the ability to tell friends they went horseback riding last night.
Parents also gain a social support group. Many wait in the viewing area during the class, which gives them time to swap stories and network with parents going through similar challenges.
“The whole program is very much a family. I know that sounds kind of corny,” Graham said.
COVID-19 has paused MRDA’s classes, and cancelled fundraising events. MRDA operates entirely on private donations and grants, Graham said, and has always struggled to make ends meet (according to MRDA’s website, rider fees cover less than 10 per cent of its $140,000 yearly budget).
“Through some miracle we do manage to make it happen, but we never have that cushion to see us through into the next session,” Graham said. “We’ve been running on a shoestring, but we keep the kids in the saddle.”