Graham Curnew says the Manitoba Riding for the Disabled Association requires two things to operate — lots of love and plenty of hugs.
"We never turn a child away as long as we can sit a child on a horse safely," said Curnew, the MRDA’s current chair who has been involved with the organization for 23 years.
The MRDA is currently in its 35th year of operation. Curnew said the efforts of hundreds of volunteers and donors have been critical to organization being able to offer therapeutic riding to disabled children from Winnipeg and other neighbouring communities.
Twenty-four children between the ages of six and 12 are accepted into each 10-week session after their applications are assessed by therapists and a speech-language pathologist.
"Our program not only provides many physical therapeutic benefits to our riders like balance, improved core strength and mobility, but equally important emotional benefits such as self-confidence and pride," Curnew said.
Penny Toupin’s 10-year-old daughter Natacha has a seizure disorder that prevents her from taking part in most sporting and recreational activities.
Toupin heard about the MRDA from a therapist. She did some research on the organization before applying to have her daughter’s name added to the program’s waiting list. Natacha is now in the final year of the four-year program.
Toupin said the program has helped Natacha in a number of different ways.
"She can get out on a horse and build up her core strength," she said. "She’s able to walk up and down stairs better."
Having a child with a disability often means that parents must be present for most of their child’s activities. The MRDA program allows parents to leave their children in the care of professionally-trained coaches and volunteers and then relax, knowing their child is happy and safe.
"As a parent, I can let her go and I can just watch," Toupin said.
Toupin expects her daughter will miss having the chance to ride once she completes the program while she herself will miss the support she gains from speaking with the parents of other participants.
"We get to share our stories," she said.
MRDA executive director Peter Manastyrsky said the program couldn’t operate without its many dedicated volunteers.
About 100 volunteers are required for each session, with a leader and two sidewalkers assigned to each child as well as experienced instructors who organize lesson plans, help tack up horses and assist children in mounting them.
"The commitment level is unbelievable," he said.
"I love horses and I love kids," said long-time volunteer Lynda Walker when asked why she has remained involved with the program for so long. "Every one of these children is an angel. They give us an uplift. We have tears when they leave."
Brittney Christensen has volunteered with the program for the past eight years. She got involved after her high school English teacher suggested the idea to her.
"This is where adults come to have fun," she said, adding that they form great friendships. "It’s beneficial to everybody."
While the program has been offered at different stables during its history, West Wind Stables, a two-year-old facility near Oak Bluff, is its current home.
During the stable’s construction, a room was built with the MRDA program in mind. The specially-designed room gives riders and volunteers a place where they can store equipment and get ready to ride at the beginning of a session.
Parents pay $400 for each year’s two 10-week sessions. The MRDA itself doesn’t receive any government funding. It relies on money it receives from fundraising, grants and donations.
Manastyrsky said a special 35th anniversary celebration for the MRDA will be held Dec. 4. It will be hosted by Lt.-Gov. Philip Lee with the program’s founders, past board members and participants invited.