Freedom Trails Therapeutic Riding Association is a half-hour jaunt north of Whitehorse. Long enough to relax, unwind and appreciate a raven making an upward climb through Rabbit’s Foot Canyon along the Alaska Highway.
The small ranch is home to fewer than a dozen horses, one of which is a brand-new mechanical one named Ronald.
“Watch out, he kicks,” jokes Judy Fortin, executive director of Freedom Trails, to a rider who has ventured behind Ronald.
Fortin is still getting used to the fibre-glass stallion, evidenced by how many times she gives pause before passing behind it.
The sculptured horse – complete with mane and tail – was built by Racewood Equestrian Simulators. It can be programmed to create both the vertical and lateral movements of a horse walking, two different speeds of trotting, loping or a full-on gallop.
With a moveable neck and head, it even responds to signals from the reins.
The British-based company also manufactures interactive mechanical horses for training in racing, polo and dressage, but the model used for therapy at Freedom Trails is the only RDA (Riding for Disabled) simulator model in North America.
Funding for the association’s newly-acquired horse was provided thanks to a recommendation by local McDonald’s Restaurant owners, Mike and Julie Thorpe.
They’ve been sponsoring riders at the ranch for eight years and eventually requested assistance for the project from the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Canada. The Thorpes learned of the approval two years ago – a long time to keep a secret this big under their hats.
“If it wasn’t for funding, there’s no way this would happen,” says Fortin, graciously acknowledging the contribution the Thorpes have made.
Freedom Trails has offered rehabilitation to those who suffer mobility issues, whether from long-term illness or injury. The addition of the $33,599 simulator means a longer riding season and reduced waiting lists for those looking to reap the benefits.
“When it’s fun, it’s already therapeutic,” says Claudia Hannig, resident therapist for the association, speaking to the growing popularity of their brand of therapy.
One rider, eight-year-old Lucas Yuill, is typical in many ways. His hair has a stylish web design shaved into the side and he’s an unabashed X-Box fan. He also lives with cerebral palsy – a motor impairment that can lead to physical disability.
Lucas, who started riding at the age of three, has limited use of all his limbs. Without his walker, explains his mother, Corinna Yuill, he is basically confined to crawling.
As he is hoisted onto Ronald for the first time and Fortin sets the horse into a trot, Lucas grins. No small feat, considering that, just hours ago, his walker was lost in a fire that torched the Yuill family’s minivan and melted the siding on their house.
“The dog started barking and I looked up and saw the light [from the fire],” says Corinna.
“If [the firefighters] weren’t so quick, the house would have gone as well,” adds father Richard Yuill, looking for a bright side in the ordeal. After spending a small amount of time with the elder Yuill, one gets the impression that he’s become good at finding silver linings.
“We actually needed to get a lift for the van but we didn’t have the money,” says Richard, thinking back to the decision to make do with their current van, “but now we don’t have a choice.”
The Yuills’ insurance will cover the costs of a new walker and van, but Richard admits that the loss of a chair is devastating to his son, who now has to wait until January for a new walker, making riding therapy that much more important in their lives.
“It’s like if someone cut off your limbs, you know,” he explains.
“[Riding is] huge for him, it’s the one thing that only he has.” Richard says speaking to the wide-array of options that most boys Lucas’ age have.
Mobility issues are challenging, especially in those who are younger, and riding therapy is a growing tool used in the rehabilitation process. According to Hannig, it relaxes the muscles of riders and allows improvements in movement and posture as they progress.
“You get the same movement on the horse that you get if you were walking yourself,” she says of the key reason that riding therapy is an effective and popular method. “Riding therapy is the only therapy where you get that, and that’s why it’s so valuable.”
The waiting list for Freedom Trails has often been five or 10 years, but Mike Thorpe hopes Ronald will be able to alleviate that pressure and allow for more riders to gain access to therapy.
“If this can shorten the wait times, it’s huge,” says Mike, pointing to the smiles and warm room temperature as proof of Ronald’s impact.
The potential for joy and the prospect of a dwindling waiting list aren’t the only reasons Ronald excites Freedom riders, though.
“You’ll never get rained out again,” jokes a participant at the riding association’s open house to introduce Ronald.
“It’s not the horses who complain though,” retorts Fortin. “It’s the riders.”