Heather Boychuk guides her horse Reno around the brand new riding area at the Lethbridge Therapeutic Riding Association (LTRA) with ease, bantering with LTRA program coordinator Eilish Short as she is directed through a series of exercises designed to improve her balance and coordination.
Heather was born with Hydrocephalus, a medical condition that causes excess fluid to build up around the brain, and can result in challenges with balance and mobility, as well as delayed verbal development. LTRA’s programs are created to assist people with various levels of disability as well as those recovering from illnesses who want a unique form of therapy.
Established in 1976, LTRA helps more than 350 people annually with rehabilitation through horse riding therapy. According to Heather’s mom, Cathie, Heather’s time on horseback over the past nine years with LTRA has completely transformed her daughter.
“We tried lots of things when Heather was growing up,” Cathie said. “She was nonverbal, so we took her to speech therapy. She couldn’t walk, so we tried physical therapy. Basically, if it had the word ‘therapy’ at the end of it, we tried it.”
When Heather was nine, her physical therapist suggested she try riding therapy at LTRA, in addition to her traditional therapy. Cathie said the physical aspect of horse riding has been the perfect activity for Heather to strengthen her core muscles, something many of the other activities she has tried in the past haven’t been able to do.
The social skills Heather has learned through interactions with staff and volunteers, combined with her time on the horses, have also helped her gain confidence outside of the arena. The skills Heather developed at LTRA were the very ones that she would need to rely on after learning about the devastating roof collapse of the LTRA arena in November 2014.
The riding arena roof caved in on a Sunday afternoon under the weight of an unusually heavy snowfall. Thankfully, no animals or people were in the building at the time of the collapse, but the nearly 50-year-old arena was damaged beyond repair. All therapy sessions had to be postponed indefinitely.
“When we learned the news about the roof collapse, my heart sank,“ Cathie said. “It’s the same feeling like if you saw your friend’s house burn down. We were devastated.” Insurance was able to cover some of the cost of a rebuild, but staff and volunteers from LTRA had to start a fundraising campaign to reach a goal of $950,000 for a new arena.
Heather knew immediately that she wanted to help with the fundraising efforts. She and a friend ran an ice cream fundraiser at her high school to raise awareness about LTRA, donating every dollar to the building fund.
Thankfully, it wasn’t just Heather who contributed to the reconstruction. A grant of $90,000 from the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta ($80,000 from the Ida and Elmer Wiens Fund, which supports children with disabilities, and $10,000 from the Community Priorities Fund) helped the organization reach its fundraising goal.
Completed in December 2015, the new 18,900 square foot arena is 24 feet wider than the old facility, and includes new features, such as a larger ramp, accessible bathrooms, as well as a mezzanine area for guests to use.
LTRA was able to begin programming again in January 2016, just 14 months after the initial roof collapse, and much to the delight of Cathie and Heather. “These last 14 months have not been easy for Heather,” Cathie said. ”We are thrilled that she is riding again, and that the physical and social sense of balance in her life has returned.”
PHOTO: Heather Boychuk works with her horse Reno in the new Lethbridge Therapeutic Riding Centre, just east of Lethbridge, AB. The nearly 19,000 sq. ft. steel building replaced an aging barn that collapsed in 2014.
Learn more about the LTRA through their Facebook page or visit their website at www.ltra.ca for more information.