By LeRae Haynes —
Seeing the world from the back of a horse can be a life-changing experience, especially when it means leaving a wheelchair behind in the dust—even for a moment.
Cariboo Hoofbeats Assisted Activity Program Society (CHAAPS) provides therapeutic riding and animal assisted therapy for children, youth, adults, and seniors from a diverse range of backgrounds including intellectual disabilities, cognitive challenges, chronic mental illness, emotional difficulties, acquired brain injury, autism, developmental delay, cerebral palsy, and physical disabilities.
As well as riding, the kids spend time grooming and caring for the horses. They can also enjoy positive interaction with dogs in the CHAAPS Literacy and Education program. The programs are held at the Pen-y-Bryn Farm just outside of Kersley, BC with an outdoor arena and access to a round pen and a bunkhouse.
Program director Angela Mezzatesta started with CHAAPS in 2012 as a volunteer, becoming a certified instructor and then accepting a position as program director. “I have always had a love of horses—was around them from when I was a child. I got a taste of a therapeutic riding program when I was a support worker, and learned about CHAAPS while working with AXIS Family Resources: some of our kids were enrolled,” she says.
Working with CHAAPS is incredibly fulfilling, challenging, and rewarding, she adds, explaining that kids can take the benefits and successes in the program into other areas of their lives.
“We see huge changes in the kids during the program, and the feedback is very positive,” she says. “There was one girl who was very timid and uncertain when she started riding with us, who went through all the levels in our program and graduated last year. She has become very confident and capable, qualified to take a test through Equine Canada and now volunteers in our program. Her goal is to become one of our instructors. Her mom says this helped both her daughters so much—trying new things in their lives, setting goals, and enjoying success,” she continues.
She describes one rider who would only work with dogs at first and wouldn’t even touch a lead. “The plan was to move him to horses, but it took eight weeks for him to get comfortable being around them,” she says. “The first time he was willing to sit on the horse, his mom sneaked a peek and saw how thrilled he was. Now he rides independently for his riding lessons.”
There is a careful screening process, including a doctor’s note, for participants to ensure that the activities won’t harm them. The horses in the CHAAPS program are screened, too. They undergo temperament testing and the vet has a list of activities she puts them through. “For example, we find out if they spook at things, have reactions to yelling, or are not sensitive to people,” says Mezzatesta.
Horses currently in the program are Porqui, a Percheron cross, Quarter Horse Suzie, and Sam the Thoroughbred. “We school the horses every week, doing things like riding the edges of the arena banging on things, waving pool noodles, and flapping things,” she says. “We roll a yoga ball around them, under them, and behind them. We want to make sure they’re okay with everything.
“The feedback from volunteers is very positive, too. We had a volunteer who came from Prince George once a week for a year for several seasons, and she said our program was fantastic and extremely well-structured,” says Mezzatesta. “CHAAPS volunteers get as much benefit as the participants. They enjoy a ‘horse’ environment and they love seeing the smiles on the faces of the riders.”
Volunteers are the backbone of CHAAPS, says Mezzatesta, adding that they are currently welcoming new ones to join the team. “We provide all the training, and you don’t need horse experience. There’s a lot of variety in what you can do with us. You have the chance to work with horses and share that with a child. We call this ‘ordinary people doing exceptional things,’ and are more than happy to answer any questions you have.”
She also says horses are a natural choice for this kind of program. “Horses are big, but they mirror us. If you give trust, they give trust, and when you ask them the right way, they give you everything you ask for.
“When kids are up on a horse they’re just like anybody else; they can be free of a wheelchair or other device,” she added. “One boy said that he learned what it feels like to have the wind in his face because he’s trotting on a horse, and another child said, ‘When I’m on a horse, I’m pain-free.’”
For more information about the CHAAPS, including how to volunteer, phone (250) 983-4005, become a friend on Facebook, and visit them at www.chaaps.ca
LeRae Haynes is a freelance writer, song writer, community co-ordinator for Success by 6, member of Perfect Match dance band, and instigator of lots of music with kids.