Riding, brushing and walking Peeps is one of 13-year-old Roree’s favorite activities. Roree said he loved Peeps and the horse was his best friend.
Roree and Peeps met through the Lethbridge Therapeutic Riding Association (LTRA), a charity that provides tailored riding programs for children and young adults with special needs. It has been part of the city for 45 years now.
Jason Shriner, executive director of the LTRA, said the program has helped people with a variety of physical and mental disabilities, such as people with diminished core strength due to an inability to walk with a traditional gait.
“A horse’s pelvis moves almost the same as the human pelvis. Moving and walking with a horse, their body moves the same way it would move if walking with a traditional unrestricted gate,” said said Shriner.
“These muscles that are not activated due to immobility issues, when on the horse they are activated and strengthened.”
Emma Hendry Wheels has been riding Joe for two years now. She says anything seems possible when she’s with him.
“We went through it all together,” she said.
“With horses, as I have this deep connection, especially with Joe, I’ve known him for quite a while, so I just know it’s going to be okay.”
Emma’s father said that whenever she felt unwell, they brought her here and it comforted her.
This effect of the relationship between humans and animals dates back a millennium, Shriner said, helping people reconnect with their inner selves and feel loved.
“[Horses] are vulnerable in order to allow us to be with them. They’re prey and we’re predators, so for a horse to trust us, they give an awful lot of love that we feel,” Shriner said.
He said humans are vulnerable when they see a large animal being vulnerable with them, and it has a positive effect on people’s mental health.
Extend support to vulnerable groups
Over the past two years, the LTRA has launched programs for seniors in long-term care facilities that were isolated during the height of the pandemic. Horses paraded around the buildings as part of the “Horses to the Window” program.
“It was really simple, really beautiful, and really pure,” Shriner said.
As restrictions were lifted, the program evolved and seniors were able to pet the horses and have a more tactile therapeutic experience.
The LTRA has also worked with Alberta Health Services to provide therapy and other forms of medical support to people living in the inner city. Horses, accompanied by human experts in harm reduction and drug and alcohol treatment support, rode to camp sites in downtown Lethbridge on Friday.
“For someone who is looking for dangerous types of comfort that come from drugs and alcohol, for a while they get genuine, genuine comfort,” Shriner said. “It reminds them of how it was before all the difficulties.”
In some cases, a person going through this wholesome experience recognizes that they need help. Shriner said “it’s super cool” that some people felt loved and agreed to go to treatment centers.
Research into the impacts of equine therapy on mood and well-being is carried out at the University of Lethbridge. An important part of the research will also be the possible impact on carers and parents.