Tuesday morning marked the reintroduction of equine-assisted therapy to riders at Valley Therapeutic Equestrian Association (VTEA) in Aldergrove, following months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Crystal Williams, who has been riding horses therapeutically since she was just three years old, was ecstatic to get back to what she calls her “favourite place” June 16.
“When I first started horseback riding, I had very poor balance and my fine motor skills were very delayed” due to Kabuki syndrome, “so I did hippotherapy.”
“Now, years later, I’m riding independently – all on my own,” said Williams, one riders the non-profit association is able to welcome back during its first stage of reopening.
VTEA director Lynn Moseley said that only people who can mount and dismount their horse unassisted can be treated at this stage – to ensure social distancing is practised at all times in the arena.
Normally, clients with physical limitations are lifted onto a therapy horse and stabilized with “thigh-holds” by volunteers walking at their sides.
But under strict new COVID-19 safety guidelines, this is not currently possible.
“It breaks my heart on a daily basis,” the director said.
“We understand how important these therapy sessions are,” especially with the autistic children for whom VTEA is their only method of therapy.
“Many of our riders are non-verbal and squeal with joy when on their horse. These kids can’t understand why we have been closed the way an adult would understand the current crisis,” Moseley said.
Those who ride – including Williams – have to wear face coverings or masks during their sessions. Instructors as well as volunteers will be equipped with face shields.
[Story continues below photos]
“A lot of instructions are communicated using facial expressions because many of our clients have hearing difficulties,” Moseley explained.
For this reason, the face shields have proven a godsend.
The 37-year-old association – which closed for months mid-March due to the pandemic – has admittedly had a tough time staying afloat.
“It’s been really tough,” the director said. “We went from robust revenue to absolutely nothing – overnight.”
Normally, horse riders pay a reduced amount for lessons.
Thankfully, nine owners of VTEA’s horses stepped up to provide feed, hay, and stall maintenance for the animals they lease out to the non-profit in exchange for boarding.
“As soon as revenue went to zero, horse owners contributed. Some even gave more than what it costs to feed their horse each month,” Moseley mentioned.
“Without them, we wouldn’t have survived.”
The VTEA team – with Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA) instructors being the only paid workers dependent upon federal emergency wage subsidies – spent the last three weeks doing dry runs to perfect stringent COVID-19 protocols.
“It takes a while to ramp up a therapy barn,” Moseley remarked. “We did the dry runs to make sure everyone’s going to be safe.”
Now, after each therapy session, arena touch points are sanitized and a different set of tack is used for the following rider, as well as another horse.
CanTRA recently recognized some of the association’s workers, including one of its therapy horses, as some of the best in the nation.
Rusty Moon, better known as “Rosie,” was awarded the Canadian association’s top honour in as Therapy Horse of the Year for 2020.
A dedicated worker, Rosie emanates a calm energy that riders on the autism spectrum especially “feed off of,” Moseley said
“She doesn’t bat an eye when they squeal in delight. She is rarely ever spooked.”
On March 28, Langley Township firefighters came to celebrate the mare’s 23rd birthday. Rosie was lavished with cookies, a birthday banner, and her very own tiara.
[Story continues below photos]
Langley volunteers Wayne and Brenda Singbeil were also given the CanTRA’s Rhonda Davies Award for the most outstanding volunteers of 2020.
Brenda’s training as a registered nurse lends itself well to her other passion – volunteering at VTEA for the past 11 years, Aldergrove Minor Hockey, Langley Hospice Society, and other local organizations.
“When times are tough, people look to the constants in their lives. Wayne and Brenda are just that,” Moseley elaborated, “Without them – Valley may not exist today.”
To get involved at VTEA, by donating money or time, people can visit vtea.ca or call 604-857-1267.