At any time at PARDS you may find a child riding a horse backwards. You might see artistic painting sessions where a patient pony is the canvas. There might be a horse-based basketball game, a cart driving by or a little girl whispering stories to her equine partner.
Every moment at the PARDS Therapeutic Centre is different. The aim, however, is always the same – to make positive change in the lives of those living with disability, through horses.
When clients come in the door, “they feel valued,” said Jennifer Wolf, PARDS executive assistant, “for who they are, their uniqueness and recognized for their abilities. You walk through the door and it’s a happy family.”
‘Happy’ and ‘family’ are words that pop up often in connection to PARDS. “It’s a real family atmosphere,” says Gayle Mayer, office manager. “It’s very supportive. We love to joke around and have fun.”
It’s a crucial part of what they do. While their therapeutic programs do lead to many positive changes physically, intellectually and socially, it’s not a place where clients are just dutifully doing what they’re told.
“Nobody seems to feel that they’re here for a problem they’re trying to fix,” says Jennifer Douglas, executive director. “The programs are activities in their own right. It’s not like going solely to do therapy.”
“For our clients, it’s recreation. They get to do something fun and exciting,” says Robyn Boudreau, who has instructed at PARDS since 2012. “They mostly don’t even realize there is a therapeutic benefit to it all.”
“I’ve had parents tell me ‘her brother has football, her sister has dance and she gets to ride the horse.’ It’s really important for these kids. They get to have an activity.”
“It’s not another place where people are telling you what to do,” says Wolf. “We’re here to support you in your goals and exploring the possibilities that are there for you.”
“PARDS is the one place she doesn’t feel broken and wrong,” says Karen Doolan about her daughter, Kira’s experience. Kira has been participating in the Youth Leadership Program for three years.
There is a long list of benefits that PARDS’s therapeutic programs bring the clients. On the physical side, they can bring anything from improved balance and muscle strength to increased range of motion. On the psychological side, anything from improved self confidence to the development of patience and self-discipline.
“We have had clients where anxiety has stopped them from participating in life so they’re not going to school, barely leaving the house … but they come here and they feel comfortable. It’s their happy place and they feel like they can be themselves,” says Stephanie Golder, program director (past).
PARDS provides a place where everyone can feel safe and included. “I believe that it’s so important to include all community members,” says Mayer. “It has a cascading effect that improves the entire society. I’ve always believed that to have a healthy community you need to have full involvement from everyone – you can’t marginalize or exclude community members.”
“One of the things we do at PARDS is to make sure all our clients are included in everything that goes on here, even decision-making. The benefits are, well, they’re incalculable,” she says.
As an inclusive family it’s definitely big – with hundreds of riders, volunteers, staff and funders – but still a happy one. The location helps.
“If you’re having a stressful time you can go into the barn and pet a few noses or you can breathe the fresh air and watch the horses out in the pasture,” says Wolf. “You can’t help but have a peaceful day here.”
It’s friendly and it’s peaceful. But it’s not just a lot of positive thoughts and anecdotal evidence. The PARDS programs have scientific evidence behind them.
“It can seem like magic sometimes,” says Golder, “but the benefits of the programs are proven by a lot of science.”
All PARDS instructors are either certified, or working towards certification with The Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA) and Equine National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP).
Horses are prey animals, and as such are extremely sensitive to their surroundings, actions occurring and the general atmosphere of their environment. Any particular horse or group of horses have unique personalities and differ in their abilities, drives and motivations. Due to their nature, they give immediate feedback to what is occurring and thus reflect back to us their sense of who we are and what we are presenting – positive or negative.
Due to the sensitive nature of horses, all PARDS equine staff undergoes a rigorous 8 week training program before they are introduced into the lesson program. Before they start their training they are marked on their attitude, disposition and conformation. Throughout the 8 week training program, each horse is schooled in groundwork, riding skills, therapeutic riding and therapeutic props.
You may find a rider and their equine partner performing a series of movements that looks like a dance.
It’s not just the instructors who are highly trained. “Our horses go through an extensive training program before clients can partner with them. It’s a complex process,” says Boudreau. “These are very unique horses. I think it’s something that the community probably doesn’t realize.”
Horses are flight animals and known for their tendency to startle easily and to jump or run when frightened. Not the PARDS herd.
“It takes a really special horse, that’s for sure,” says Boudreau. “We’ve played basketball on the horses, played horseshoes, rode them backwards – the kids do all kinds of funny stuff and they’ll be laughing so loud up on the horse. Most horses don’t like that but ours are able to handle it.”
These horses are as close to ‘bomb-proof’ as a living animal can be, they are also extremely intuitive.
“They seem to know the riders in a way I can’t quite explain,” says Mayer. “They are very intelligent animals and it shows in their response to the clients and the way they act around the clients.”
Some horses are careful to tippy-toe around a client’s feet when they don’t have full control of their limbs or spatial awareness or to lower their head down for a hug when little arms can’t reach high enough from a wheelchair.
“It’s amazing to watch these horses,” says Wolf. “They seem to know when a person needs compassion and when they need a little tune-up, too, like ‘I’m not putting up with this’. They are amazing partners and teachers.’”
Horses can be effective helpers even where human helpers haven’t been able to succeed.
“The equine partners facilitate in a totally different way,” says Golder. “It’s not like you’re being told by an adult what to do, you’re really being shown by this intelligent, truthful animal how they feel about your behaviour.”
“It’s just real, with the horses,” says Douglas. “Horses mirror you so if you’re aggressive when you approach them, they shy away. But if you’re gentle and friendly, they’ll come forward. They don’t try to change your behaviour but they help you understand how the world sees you.”
Beyond the therapeutic aspect, learning to work with equine partners is something that naturally develops confidence.
“It’s very empowering working with horses,” says Douglas. “It’s a very large animal that many people are afraid of. When you’re not feeling in control of your whole world, there is a lot of pride that goes along with doing something unique. It’s incredibly impactful for the riders and for the staff and volunteers that witness the change and growth.”
The horses and instructors are obviously a crucial part of PARDS but as Boudreau says, “our program couldn’t run without the help of our volunteers.”
With a maximum of three riders per lesson, each rider can require up to three volunteers. “That’s nine volunteers for just one lesson,” she says, “and they will always come.”
Volunteers often end up creating a special bond with the riders they assist – to the point that if a rider has to reschedule, the volunteers will juggle their plans to make sure they can be there too.
Volunteers are involved in all aspects of PARDS, not just the lessons. At any given time there are volunteers fixing fences, mucking out stalls, clearing snow, planning events and raising funds.
“The volunteer doesn’t have to fit us, we find a way to fit the volunteer. Whatever you have to offer, we’ll work with you to ensure you feel good about sharing your time and skills with us,” says Mayer.
Volunteers tend to become quite committed to PARDS, she says.
“They tell us it’s their happy place,” says Douglas. “Even riders will come when they’re not riding and volunteer. They just like being here.”
It’s a combination of things – watching clients grow and develop, physically, psychologically and socially – and also the sense that it’s a community of friends that keeps people at PARDS.
For the families of PARDS participants, it’s also a place of support, where they can make friends who understand the unique challenges they can face. It’s also a place where caregivers can have a break.
“For some parents it’s 45 minutes out of their week that they get to just breathe while they sit in the lounge and know that their child is engaged and well taken care of and learning and growing,” says Douglas.
The programs at PARDS are designed with the understanding that personal challenges can run the gamut from paralysis to anxiety – with every imaginable issue in-between.
“We serve clients with emotional, physical, cognitive and social challenges,” says Golder. “It’s individual to each and every one.”
“One little boy, he just comes in to lay on the back of a horse. He’s severely disabled and he sleeps as he is walked around the arena”, she says. “It’s peaceful for him. He gets that warmth and he gets the muscle movement so he doesn’t atrophy.”
“We accommodate,” says Douglas. “One of the key pieces with PARDS is that we don’t have programs that we fit you into, we fit our programs to what you need and will help you accomplish your personal goals.”
“We have another client, she’s in a wheelchair but she has the ability to support herself,” says Golder. “She can’t walk on her own but through the help of her equine partner, by the end of the lesson she walks – by holding onto him they walk the entire length of the arena together.”
One client in particular comes in every week to groom a specific horse. “That’s her partner and her friend. It’s who she talks to and tells her worries,” says Golder. “For her, that’s more important than the physical brushing, it’s the connection she has with the horse. He listens to her problems and helps her hash out her life.”
“We offer our clients the freedom that they can’t get anywhere else”, continues Golder.
Programs at PARDS include therapeutic riding, cart driving, equicizer, equimotricity, grooming and youth leadership. Staff might combine a variety of program activities for one client or add extra components – whatever will work best for the individual. Summer camps for kids and adults incorporate all the programs into one fun and wacky week.
“It’s crazy,” laughs Golder. “It’s very high-energy, very supportive, very goal-focused.”
“Recognizing your own strengths and identifying strengths in other people is a driving philosophy behind the summer camps,” she says.
Each rider is celebrated at the end of the camp for their achievements.
Celebrating strengths is a key tenet of PARDS. It goes back to the early days, in 1984, when the organization was just a few borrowed or leased horses, some dedicated volunteers and a small rented arena.
“It makes a difference in so many ways,” says Raymond Binks, chairman (past) of the PARDS board, of what he witnessed in the early days that led to his over 30-year involvement with the organization. “If nothing else, just the smile on the clients’ faces spoke loudly and clearly that this is something they need.”
Binks has seen many changes over the years – the move to their own facility east of Grande Prairie, the evolution of the programs, the acquisition and training of a PARDS herd of therapy horses, the move to a hugely-expanded site in 2016. “It’s come a long way from where it started,” he says.
“I’ve seen quite a lot over the years and all the stories touch your heart. Even if you’re watching someone fall off a horse and thinking, ‘oh, ouch,” but then they get up and keep going. It’s a wonderful thing,” he says.
“They don’t dwell on the bad things, they dwell on the fact that they love it.”
Decades after its beginning, it’s still a place with the same goals. “It’s just an overall great organization for volunteers, clients, staff – everyone,” says Binks. “Everyone has the best interest of everybody else in their hearts all the time.”
Beyond the horses, volunteers and staff, there is one other crucial group that keeps things going at PARDS: the sponsors.
“You cannot run a facility without funds. We can’t run without volunteers. It takes a community to build a whole program that is non-profit,” says Douglas.
“We do all the fundraising we can, to the best of our abilities but we can only do so much,” says Wolf.
It is through the generosity of companies and individuals that come in and make donations that PARDS can keep operating.
“People care. People really do care. We have some generous people in this community who share the philosophy that everyone deserves the opportunity to participate”, says Boudreau.
PARDS holds several fundraising events each year, including its annual Fund Ride & Community Carnival and Dine & Dance. All the funds raised go towards the organization’s operations. “It’s important to keep PARDS growing”, says Douglas. “it’s important to keep up with community need and grow capacity to meet that need.
“Our purpose is to support our riders to be their personal best, whatever that may look like for them. We can only do that if we, as an organization, overcome fear and complacency and embrace our own possibilities.”