On a sunny May day just south of Chengdu, a thin woman with a Texas accent stood in a corral talking to a horse. Two local women who'd been cutting greens nearby stopped to watch, curiously, as she narrated her actions in a conversational tone: throwing soft balls at and over the horse, tossing a rope over his back and then around his legs, making him stand next to a block of metal stairs and then running up and down on them. Through it all the horse seemed unfazed, even bored. He was coming along well.
The Texan was Kathleen Weidler, and her curiosity-provoking routine was aimed at training the horse for a special mission: providing therapeutic riding for kids with disabilities. The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association defines therapeutic riding as using "equine-assisted activities for the purpose of contributing positively to cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of people with disabilities." A few years ago, Weidler brought together borrowed horses and riding space, Chinese and expat volunteers, and her own energy and experience to start Chengdu's only therapeutic riding program, and started putting local children on horseback.
In some ways, Weidler seems an unlikely person to spearhead such a program: Though horse-crazy as a kid, it was only when she moved to Xi'an with her own children and teacher husband that she was able to start riding regularly. After the family moved from Xi'an to Singapore in 2004, she decided to volunteer at a therapeutic riding center in part because she hoped to be able to ride for free. But she liked the work, and moved up the volunteer ranks to become an instructor.
When the Weidlers moved to Chengdu in 2007, Kathleen quickly started laying the groundwork here for a therapeutic riding program. She joined the Haowei riding club (豪威马术俱乐部), a training center for the horse-jumping event of the modern pentathlon that was then located in south of Huayang, and leased a horse for a month. Weidler started using balls, ropes, and stairs to train the horse not to spook when confronted with situations—like being charged by a screaming child—that would make most horses panic. Her main goal was to demonstrate what she had in mind to the club's owners before she came to them with her pitch: She wanted to use their horses and space for therapeutic riding sessions. But she also credits the run-up to the Beijing 2008 Paralympics for making Chinese more accustomed to the idea that disabled people can benefit from physical activities. Not only did the club owners agree to provide the horses, they provided them for free.
Weidler partnered with the Holy Love School, which educates disabled children, and began running free twice-a-week riding sessions in the spring and fall. The program is very popular with parents, she says: "It's something that gives them hope. It gives their kids an opportunity to develop." For example, riding can help children with cerebral palsy walk more smoothly and with less spasticity, she says. For autistic kids, on the other hand, interacting with the animal can help them integrate sensory information. She has even seen an autistic child who was thought to be non-verbal say a word while on a horse. Whatever a person's disability, "being outdoors in the quiet on a big animal is therapeutic in itself," she says.
After several successful six-week sessions, though, the program hit a snag when Haowei moved to the grounds of the recently built Pierre de Coubertin Modern Pentathlon Centre in Shuangliu's Zhengxing Town. The highly acclaimed center, which is slated to host modern pentathlon world cup competitions annually until 2014, is a mammoth and multifunctional space, which makes it, according to Weidler, unsuitable for therapeutic riding. Fortunately, through a neighbor she met Mr. Wang, who owns a small private club farther south, in Shuangliu's Jiancha Town (双流县煎茶镇), with five seldom-used horses that he was happy to see used for a good cause.
Before the therapeutic riding can start again, though, the new horses have to be trained, a project that now occupies several mornings a week of Weidler's time. Once they're ready she'll start doing Wednesday and Saturday sessions again in the spring and fall; in the long term, she hopes to recruit enough volunteers to run sessions every day (each horse/rider pair requires three volunteers, one on each side of the horse and one to lead it). She also hopes to find dedicated transportation for the program, to lessen the burden of the long commute on parents and volunteers. As for what she calls her "big-big-big" goals, she'd like to help Chinese therapeutic riding instructors attain international certification, and ultimately to see China develop its own therapeutic riding organization.
This article by Shawna Williams was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 44 ("move it move it"). For information on volunteering for the program, contact Kathleen Weidler at jkweidler [AT] yahoo [DOT] com. Image source