Eight-year-old Brexton Metzler loves his weekly riding lessons.
He climbs up on top of a horse with a little bit of help from a volunteer, and takes hold of the reins. As the horse walks around the ring in circles, patiently and gently, Brexton smiles ear to ear.
With the reins in his hands, and a half hour of fun ahead of him, this is where the young boy gets a fresh new look at the world. This is where all his anxiety slips away.
Brexton, who has autism, is just one of many children who spend time at the Pacific Riding for Developing Abilities. The therapeutic horseback riding program has been running for 33 years, helping people with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities.
“He loves it,” says his mom, Ruth Metzler. “First and foremost it’s an activity he can do on his own, as team sports are not suitable. It’s awesome to have something for him where they understand his needs.”
He’s been riding once a week for two years, and it’s given him better core balance and posture, she says.
“It’s also very calming and soothing for him,” she says. “It’s always something he’s happy and excited to do.”
The riding program is indeed a popular one; the wait list for new riders is about one year long. Once families see the many benefits of therapeutic riding, they’re usually hooked.
As much as Brexton loves his riding lessons, getting places is not just a matter of effortlessly jumping in the car. Transitions can be difficult for him, and for a busy family, the transitions are endless. On a typical trip to the store, Brexton has to negotiate his way from the house to the car, into the car, out of the car, through the parking lot, through double doors, out of the doorway, all around the store, through the till, to the doors and on again until they’re back home.
But it’s getting easier, thanks to yet another four-legged friend.
Langley, an Autism Assistance Dog Guide, joined the Metzler family just over two years ago. Langley and Brexton became fast friends, and in December last year, Langley even started going to school with Brexton.
“He’s overwhelmed a lot less,” Ruth says. “He’s able to get himself better a lot sooner.”
Langley goes almost everywhere with Brexton, making those transitions more comfortable. Langley even comes to riding lessons, where he takes a break from his work duty and relaxes on the floor in the waiting area while Brexton enjoys his therapeutic lessons.
And here, Langley is not alone.
Another Autism Assistance Guide Dog, named Windsor, lies on the floor when Langley walks in. They’ve met before, many times, but neither dog really reacts to the other one. They lay almost side by side, ignoring each other and keeping an eye on their moms.
Windsor is a working dog for Cooper Gerrits, who also has autism along with severe anxiety, and rides at PRDA on Chilliwack Central Road.
“Some days he doesn’t want to come,” says Cooper’s mom, Crystal.
But with Windsor by his side, he’s able to overcome the anxiety and get going.
The dogs will work with their chosen families for eight to 10 years, at which point they’ll retire into old age and remain as loving and faithful companions. They are trained through the Lions Foundation of Canada Dog Guides program, which works with children ages three to 18. They are meant to provide safety, companionship and unconditional love, as well as a calming relief in high anxiety situations, such as the classroom or traveling.
Families travel to Ontario to meet their dogs, and spend time there meeting other families and being trained to work with the dogs.
Both the Gerrits and Metzler families say life has changed for the better since connecting their children with their new equine and canine friends. The boys have built new relationships, become more confident, and have been able to enjoy a bit of independence with the help of these programs — whether it’s atop a horse, or curled up for a story with a dog to cuddle.
But neither program would be financially possible for many families without donations, and both happen to have fundraising events coming up in the next few weeks.
The Purina Dog Walk raises funds for the Lions Foundation’s program, and takes place on May 31. For more information, call Val Martindale at 604-392-3781.
The Pacific Riding for Developing Abilities has their annual fundraising golf tournament at Kinkora on June 6. They are looking for sponsors, golfers, and items to give as prizes and for the silent auction. For more information, visit www.therapeuticridingchilliwack.com.