Changing lives, one horse ride at a time
Jill Anne Joseph is chair of the Therapeutic Riding Association of Ottawa-Carleton board of directors.
By Jill Anne Joseph
France Laliberté is among the Glebites who have made a big difference in the lives of children and adults with physical, developmental and learning disabilities by giving them therapeutic riding lessons on horses.
Laliberté has been a part-time instructor for 16 years at the Therapeutic Riding Association of Ottawa- Carleton (TROtt), a small gem among local non-profits located about 30 minutes south of the Glebe on Bank Street. After so many heartwarming encounters, Laliberté struggles to pick her most memorable.
“This is a tough question because there are so many,” she says. “The first one that comes to mind is a rider I met when I started in 2007, and he is still riding with me today, in his twenties now. He has cerebral palsy and, as a baby, the doctors told his parents that he would never walk. But the hippotherapy/physiotherapy was transformative for him, and you should see him get around now! He walks with a walker and is a great rider – just amazing and so inspiring.”
Like many TROtt supporters, Laliberté loves animals. As a child, she spent her summers with horses and other animals on her grandpa’s farm, becoming an accomplished rider. When Laliberté decided to transition to equine therapy, she had been working at the Montreal Children’s Hospital as a paediatric nuclear-medicine technologist for 16 years. But she found her medical work emotionally taxing after having children of her own. Since Laliberté was also a certified Western riding instructor, training as a therapeutic riding instructor was a logical step to combine her passion for horses with her desire to help children. She began her training at a barn in the Laurentians and joined TROtt when she moved to Ottawa in September 2007. She became fully certified as a therapeutic riding instructor in 2009.
Witnessing the progress of her riders and the happiness it brings to them and to their families is what has kept Laliberté so dedicated to TROtt over the years.
“Another rider I taught for a couple years was working on her riding skills and participating in ParaDressage video competitions that were held by Equine Canada across the country,” she recalls. “She ranked first in Canada in 2020! I was really proud of her.”
TROtt’s riding lessons provide life-changing therapy to the disabled in countless ways. Laliberté says the gait of the horse reproduces the human gait, mimicking the healthful benefits of walking in the brains of individuals with mobility issues. Balancing and stretching on the well-trained horses helps tremendously with core work, flexibility, coordination and stamina. It also allows riders to practise a sport without having weight on their joints, which is critical for some of TROtt’s adult clients.
For other riders, just achieving goals through rein work and fun games with their peers is very fulfilling from an emotional and psychological perspective. It provides a huge boost to their self-esteem and confidence. TROtt has recently added equine-assisted learning, a non-riding program that contributes to mental and social health.
TROtt is a welcoming community that could not exist without its 100-plus volunteers. There are many ways to help, and no horse experience is needed. TROtt provides special training as a sidewalker (helping the rider with some physical support and in following instructions) or as a horse handler (preparing the horses and leading them safely through their paces in class.)Many classes are “walk only,” so you don’t have to be an athlete to volunteer. Other opportunities include barn work, special events or serving on the board of directors.
Laliberté told me that every week, volunteers tell her how much they love coming to TROtt not just because of the wonderful, happy environment and the social aspect, but also because of how good it makes them feel and how proud they are to see their riders progress. More volunteers in our programs means more riders and more life-changing experiences, which is TROtt’s vision for the future! Glebites interested in volunteering are invited to learn more at ottawatherapeuticriding.ca/volunteer/.
Rider with horse handler and two sidewalkers
France Laliberté has volunteered with the Therapeutic Riding Association of Ottawa Carleton for 16 years.