So much more than just horseplay

  • Riding high: Gabriel Neto, 3, has gone from strength to strength (Photograph supplied)

    Riding high: Gabriel Neto, 3, has gone from strength to strength (Photograph supplied)

  • In the saddle: WindReach instructor Samantha Hillier (Photograph supplied)

    In the saddle: WindReach instructor Samantha Hillier (Photograph supplied)

No progress is too little for Samantha Hillier. Having witnessed the wheelchair-bound ride and the speech-impaired sing, the WindReach instructor extols the healing power of horses.

Being around the animals is her biggest reward.

“The connection between animals and people is incredible, let alone being up on a huge horse when you’re in a wheelchair all day,” she said.

“We had one rider who it took a solid year to get her to sit on the horse. It was the fear of getting on top of them and the confidence of lifting her leg off the ground. Now she loves it. She’s so happy up there.”

The 28-year-old started as assistant manager of the therapeutic riding programme in 2012. She was promoted to manager a year ago.

“It was perfect timing. I was back on island and a full-time position came up,” said Ms Hillier who volunteered at WindReach as a teenager.

The programme caters to a wide range of abilities. People with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, ADHD, visual impairment, anxiety, speech and learning differences can all benefit from the therapy.

“Anything you can think of we can cater to,” said Ms Hillier.

“We have riders from 18 months to 88 years old. We can help with physical strength, balance and co-ordination, muscle strength — anywhere from the physical to more social interaction; social skills, developing self-confidence, emotional control, self-discipline. We can also focus on educational goals — letters, colours, sequencing, motor-planning, hand-eye co-ordination.”

The lessons are “completely individualised”, adapted to each rider.

“We have one rider who has tight muscles in his legs. It’s not very comfortable for the first minute, then as soon as he starts walking around [on the horse], you see his muscles relax and stretch down and the biggest smile on his face.

“Another rider has a traumatic brain injury from a bike accident. He’s in a wheelchair. We have adapted the reins with a handle so he can control the horse with one hand and hold the saddle in the other.

“Riders with ADHD can do everything that you might see in a normal riding lesson, they just might need it broken down into smaller steps. We can still reach the same goals, just in a different way.”

The only programme of its kind on the island, it started more than 45 years ago with a quarter of the staff, using horses from around the island.

“The riding programme was a separate charity back then — Bermuda Riding for the Disabled. The programme and WindReach all merged together in 2008,” she said.

Instructors must complete 20 hours of training every three years in order to be accredited by the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association.

“I’d been riding for years, but I didn’t have any formal training,” Ms Hillier said.

“We did a portion on disabilities — what works best, what is advisable or isn’t — as well as some contraindications for therapeutic riding, so some conditions that riding may or may not be beneficial for.”

She certified in 2013 and has attended various conferences around the US, including the professional association of therapeutic horsemanship’s annual conferences.

WindReach is always looking for new volunteers.

“We couldn’t do it without our volunteers,” she said.

“Some volunteers have been here over 20 years. That shows how incredible the programme really is.”

Volunteers do not need to have horse experience “just a willingness to be near them”. Nor do you need a formal diagnosis to reap the benefits. It costs $300 for a 12-week term; financial assistance is available for those eligible.

The horses are their main asset. Among the group are three Norwegian Fjords, a “calm and gentle breed”.

“We have riders who have said their first words on the horse. It’s incredible to watch,” Ms Hillier said.

“We had one student tell her mother that she’s so glad she has ADHD so she can ride here with us.”

Three-year-old, Gabriel Neto, started before he could even walk. He has a medical condition which causes low muscle tone.

“When he first started at 18 months old he wasn’t talking much, couldn’t walk and now he’s running into the stable” Ms Hillier said.

“He’s chatting. He sings to the horse.

Hearing a ten-year-old with ADHD and anxiety say how “safe, happy and free” they feel at WindReach “just says it all”, Ms Hillier said.

“The great thing about WindReach is we have other programmes going on. We have our adaptive sports programme and our life skills programme. If this might not be the best fit for somebody there’s something on property that they’ll enjoy.”

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Published Jan 15, 2018 at 8:00 am (Updated Jan 15, 2018 at 9:31 am)

So much more than just horseplay

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