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Sunrise Therapeutic Riding & Learning Centre, a safe and fun place for people with special needs

Lori Christmas


It is becoming more and more popular for people with special needs to choose alternate forms of therapy such as therapeutic horseback riding.


Sunrise Therapeutic Riding & Learning Centre in Puslinch, Ont. near Guelph and Cambridge, is an accredited therapy centre for those with cognitive, behavioural, physical, and social needs.


There are many therapeutic riding centres across Canada but most of them are not accredited through the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association; Sunrise is.


“Anybody could pop a person with special needs on a horse and call themselves a therapeutic riding centre. Obviously there is a lot of danger in not understanding the particular needs and what you have,” states Alissa Gibson, the development manager at Sunrise.


“At Sunrise, we are accredited and all of our instructors are certified,” she says.


Sunrise runs many programs that help people with special needs and they also have integrated programs.


“For those with physical needs, it gives them complete freedom of movement,” Gibson explains.


“For those with cognitive needs, they can work on communication skills. Some have spoken for the first time while on the back of a horse.”


Sunrise has therapeutic driving and grooming programs as well, for those who may not be comfortable riding a horse. Camp Sunrise is a summer camp program that is fully integrated. About 30 percent of campers have special needs.


Riding a horse is an empowering activity for anyone. For those with special needs, it can be the empowerment that can set them up for greater success in the outside community. This source of therapy allows people to learn the skills that enable them to be more involved within a community.


Gibson quotes a former rider who said, “Sunrise isn’t just my source of therapy activities, it is my stepping stone into the world.”


In a newsletter from the riding centre, parents explained how beneficial Sunrise is for their children. Birdie, a mother of a participant in the program, Matthew, spoke on what Sunrise means to her child.


“Matthew has had so many opportunities to try new things and succeed. There are not enough words to express our appreciation and gratitude for this wonderful haven called Sunrise,” Birdie says.


Not only does Sunrise improve the confidence of people with social needs, it also teaches children without special needs valuable lessons. The integrated programs at Sunrise, such as Camp Sunrise, teach children to respect everyone and to be better citizens.


“I had one mom say, ‘My child wants to learn sign language so she can communicate with her friend and she opens doors for everybody because her other friend has a wheelchair,’” says Gibson.


Sunrise is building citizenship in children and it is benefitting the community as a whole.


Sunrise was founded in 1982 and started as a seasonal program with five riders and three horses. Sunrise became a year-round operation in 1996 when its owners purchased a permanent farm house.


Today, Sunrise has 96 riders with special needs and about 20 able-bodies riders who come to ride every week, with 18 paid staff and over 260 volunteers. They have 20 horses, four miniature horses, and one donkey.


Generally, the lessons run from a half hour to an hour. Sunrise holds private and group lessons. The activities in the lessons are based solely on the ability of each rider, which is determined by their instructor.

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