Saturday, September 23, 2023

Holiday Horse Camp Fosters Responsibility, Empathy for People with Disabilities

Dream Catchers is now excepting registration for its Holiday Horse Camp. (Courtesy Dream Catchers)
Dream Catchers is now accepting registration for its Holiday Horse Camp. (Courtesy Dream Catchers)

Dream Catchers at the Cori Sikich Therapeutic Riding Center is offering a Holiday Horse Camp later this month with the goal of spreading the organization’s love of horses and passion for helping people with special needs.

The Toano-based therapeutic riding program, which provides horseback riding lessons and other horse-related activities each week to children and adults with special needs, will be holding the annual camp Dec. 28, 29 and 30.

While most of Dream Catchers’ offerings are intended for people with special needs, this particular experience is aimed at children without disabilities. The camp will give kids ages 8 to 13 the opportunity to experience firsthand what life is like for an individual with special needs in the hopes of increasing their sense of empathy and respect.

Day campers will spend each day learning how to care for and riding horses, but with a catch – at various points throughout the day, each participant will draw a special need out of a hat and ride as if they had that disability.

Special needs experiences will reflect the wide variety of disabilities represented among the communities served by Dream Catchers. One participant might be asked to mount a horse using the electric lift that is used by people in wheelchairs, while another might ride blindfolded to simulate the experience of a person without sight.

Each day will begin with an interactive safety review and progress through a series of tasks, including lessons and  chores like feeding and grooming the horses and cleaning out their stalls. Every camper will be assigned a horse that will be their own for the duration of the three-day camp, an arrangement that camp counselors hope will encourage a sense of responsibility as the campers learn about the commitment required to care for an animal.

Campers will have the opportunity participate in normal riding lessons, led by Dream Catchers’ Sally Derrig, a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International certified advanced instructor, as well as special needs challenges throughout each day.

For the first time in the camp’s history, participants will also have the opportunity to take vaulting lessons, a skill set that Dream Catchers Executive Director Nancy Paschall describes as “gymnastics on horseback.”

The lessons will be led by Ashley Ragans, the only Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship certified instructor in the state of Virginia to be awarded enhanced credentials as a certified interactive vaulting instructor.

Camp instructors and counselors hope participants walk away from the experience with a newfound compassion and empathy for people with disabilities,  as well as a deeper understanding of both the joys and hardships of caring for a horse.

“In some ways [the camp] is an antidote to some of the consumerism you see this time of year,” Paschall said.

Dream Catchers staff are also hopeful that some of the campers will go on to become volunteers with the organization when they become eligible at age 14.

Paschall cites Camp Coordinator Mollie Trainum as an example of the trajectory that can be set in motion by camp participation. Trainum went from camper to volunteer, serving first as a camp counselor and now as camp coordinator while on break from her studies at Regent University, where she received a partial scholarship due to her involvement in Dream Catchers.

“We want to get young people involved,” Paschall said. “Our volunteers are so important because they truly build relationships with our students. There’s a tremendous sense of family and community.”

The Holiday Horse Camp runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 28, 29 and 30. Registration is $250 and ends Dec. 17. Space is limited. Call 757-566-1775 to register.

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