A smile of joy spreads across Ayabonga Rwexana’s face as he sits astride a horse for the first time. Born with cerebral palsy, he’s never experienced the ease of movement he has now, as his sweet-tempered mount strolls around the paddock, led by a volunteer. There’s a walker on each side of the youngster, giving support where necessary and ensuring his safety. He waves happily as he passes his schoolmates waiting their turn.
Her experience is vital
We’re on a farm in the rolling hills between Port Alfred and Kleinemonde in the Eastern Cape, home of the Healing Horses Therapeutic Riding Centre. Started in March last year as an offshoot of the Three Sisters Horse Trails, the centre is helping disabled children build their confidence and gain a new skill, while relaxing, and exercising muscles. It’s a life-changing experience for everyone concerned.
“I wanted to do this for ages,” says Jann Webb, who started her horse trails 28 years ago, after she and her husband returned to South Africa to run the family farm, after sailing yachts in the Far East. “With this project, we’re teaching the kids a skill – riding – and they get all the side benefits of strengthening core muscles, plus developing gross and fine motor skills. The emotional and psychological benefits also are huge. You should see how riding builds their confidence. It’s a rounded, wholesome activity, and it’s fun.”
The horses’ natural rhythm also helps the disabled develop their own rhythmic pattern when walking. “Horses have an amazing ability to work with people and heal them,” says instructor Sheena Ferguson. “We select the more stable, gentler characters with a smooth gait to work with the children, but give the autistic children a horse with a more active gait to keep their minds on the task.”
Her arrival in Port Alfred to look after her elderly mom made it possible for Jann to realise her dream, as Sheena is a level two instructor with the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA), and has 27 years of experience in Australia.
As such she is qualified to work with the children and to train instructors like Jann.
Her experience is vital in a project such as this and it shows. A child on the next horse is not happy with her first ride and gives a fearful wail at the first few steps.
“It’s fine, just sitting on the horse will be enough for her today,”
Sheena reassures the assisting volunteers. “She’s working her muscles to sit upright and balance herself and we’ll just do a few simple tasks with her to improve strength and coordination while the horse stands still.”
Lessons are generally ten minutes to start with and progress to 40 minutes as the children become fitter. In today’s class of six riders from Enkuthazweni Centre in Nemato township, there are children with cerebral palsy who cannot walk or speak, while others are physically able but autistic.
Already the more experienced riders have been through their paces. Lonwabo Nyaba has progressed so much in the last year at Healing Horses that he can now ride without assistance. “When Sisipho [Komani] saw this, she was determined to do the same,” says Jann.
“When she achieved her goal, she called proudly to everyone, ‘Look at me.’”
It’s hard to believe the child was severely traumatised and withdrawn when she first arrived for riding lessons. Now she beams, and hugs Jann before walking confidently to the mounting ramp, donated by a local doctor to replace the old packing cases used previously.
“The community has been wonderful,” says Jann. “We had a fundraiser at the local golf club and people just put up their hands to help.”
Putting things in perspective
They now have a physiotherapist who visits to help the children to loosen up before they ride, and members of the local chapter of Rotary help transport the Enkuthazweni children to classes.
“This is God’s own country,” says Rotary president Ray Oliver, gazing at the pastoral scene of love and compassion playing out before his eyes. “And people in the Eastern Cape are something else.”
Rob Joiner, a retired headmaster who is the project manager at Enkuthazweni, admits that initially, he had reservations about putting disabled children on horseback. “But we are finding it so beneficial for the children. Some have improved hugely in just three months.”
Apart from Enkuthazweni children, other disabled riders attending classes at Healing Horses include a blind adult from Port Alfred, who has memorised the layout of the paddock so well he can ride from point A to E, or wherever, when instructed to do so.
The benefits of therapeutic riding are well established, and Healing Horses is one of just a handful of outfits associated with the South African RDA that is, in turn, modelled on the RDA in the UK. “It’s very useful to have their guidelines,” says Jann, who has done much behind-the-scenes paperwork to get registered as an NPO, and to raise funds and organise the roster of volunteers for the twice-weekly sessions.
Healing Horses relies heavily on volunteers, who receive training from Sheena on working with the disabled and the horses. “I could cry when I see the joy on a child’s face,” says one of them, Pauline Lamerton. “As we get to know the kids and what they like, communication improves, even though we don’t speak much Xhosa.”
“It really puts things in perspective when you work with these kids,” says another, Pania Heny. “No matter how you feel when you arrive here, you leave feeling good.” Volunteer Judith Broom finds it a wonderful opportunity to reconnect with horses, and to experience the joy of helping the children. “The horses give them the freedom to be like anyone else.”
Tamsin Mbatsha Bouwer is a great role model for the other riders. Born with cerebral palsy, she started riding at the age of five and, by the age of just 16, she’d progressed so far that she was selected as a reserve rider for South Africa in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. She volunteered at Healing Horses and, through her connections in the equine world, got a job in Port Alfred, but remains an ambassador for the project.
The volunteers on each team form close bonds with each other and the children and the project has taken on a life of its own. “Everyone brings their ideas for us to try out,” says Jann. “I get even more pleasure out of this than I thought I would.”
Healing Horses has grown slowly but steadily and now has 17 trained volunteers assisting 12 riders. There’s a waiting list, and possible corporate sponsorship will help to add another 12 riders. A wheelchair, a lunge ring and a shelter with toilet for waiting riders are next on their wish list.
“As we get more assistance from the community, especially more volunteers to lead and side-walk, we can grow and help more children,” says Jann. “But it all starts with the horses.”