Lynda Walker, a self-proclaimed city girl, knew from a young age she loved horses, yet she never had the chance while growing up to be near one.
She also knew she absolutely loved children. So when, 15 years ago, she discovered a program looking for volunteers that combined both her loves, she was on cloud nine. She has been volunteering for the Manitoba Riding for the Disabled Association ever since.
"It's a very loving organization, that loves horses and loves children," says Walker, who was born and raised in Winnipeg. "Right away I fell in love with the children -- they are the most special angels in the world."
The Manitoba Riding for the Disabled Association is a therapeutic horseback riding program for children aged six to 12, living with disabilities, including cerebral palsy, visual impairments, autism and other developmental challenges. The charitable non-profit organization, that receives no government funding and relies on donations and fundraising to operate, was formed in 1977, and is the only certified riding program in Manitoba.
Walker volunteers every Wednesday evening for four hours at the West Wind Stables, doing everything from taking care of the horses, saddling them up, meeting with the parents of the children and walking alongside the horse while the children ride.
"It's so amazing, sometimes you will have a child who at the beginning is totally afraid of the horses," says Walker, "and by the end of four sessions, gets on the horse and is a very good rider. Just to see the smiles on the children's faces, it's worth a million bucks."
Walker says the riding program offers a variety of benefits for the child participants, including helping to improve their balance and co-ordination as well as strengthening muscles. The program also provides children with a challenge and a subsequent sense of accomplishment, as well as the opportunity to develop a strong bond of respect, trust and friendship with both the horses and volunteers.
"Sometimes the children will bring pictures of themselves riding to show to classmates at school," beams Walker. "They're just so proud and we are so proud of them, too."
Walker says the volunteers go to the children's graduation each year, and admits, "we're all sitting there crying."
"There are some kids you'll just never forget," she smiles. "They take up a special spot in your heart. It's just such a beautiful program."
Walker says the program also frequently brings together the parents of the children, who often, for the couple of hours their children are riding, sit up in a special viewing area together, and inevitably begin talking with one another. She says a lot of times the parents all become friends, offering each other support.
Walker says for volunteers, the four hours just fly by. For every child, she says there are volunteers who walk on both sides of the horse, and a trained individual who leads the horse. She says volunteers begin by reaching up and holding the child steady, and by the end of the sessions just offer support by holding the child's heel. Children hold on to the reins of the horse, while the individual walking in front helps lead the horse. Walker says there are a number of exercises, games and relay races that are done with the children as they ride the horses each session.
"Volunteers such as Lynda Walker is the reason why the Manitoba Riding for the Disabled Association program has been providing therapeutic horseback riding to disabled children for 35 years," says Peter Manastyrsky, executive director, Manitoba Riding for the Disabled Association Inc. "Lynda's big heart and commitment to the program is indescribable as she has been with the program for many years."
"Volunteering for the organization is just so fulfilling to me personally," says Walker. "It's like being part of a big family."
The Manitoba Riding for the Disabled Association is looking for volunteers to act as horse leaders or side walkers. A mandatory volunteer orientation will be held on Sept. 9, beginning at 6:30 p.m. at West Wind Stables, just past the Perimeter Highway in Oak Bluff. Volunteers must be 16 years or older and although horse experience is necessary to be a leader it is certainly not required to be a side walker. For more information, or to learn how you can donate, please visit their website www.mrda.cc or phone 204-925-5905.
If you know a special volunteer who strives to make his or her community a better place to live, please contact Carolyn Shimmin-Bazak at: firstname.lastname@example.org.