How a horse can speak to your soul

By Melissa Schilz, Postmedia Network

Kids at the riding camp practise their grooming skills on Blue, one of the older horses who has been retired for a few years now. Melissa Schilz/Postmedia Network

Kids at the riding camp practise their grooming skills on Blue, one of the older horses who has been retired for a few years now. Melissa Schilz/Postmedia Network

Four dogs, two goats, three pigs, two bunnies and over a dozen horses; these are just some of the animals that roam the grounds of Rokeby Stables, sniffing the legs of visitors and sharing sloppy kisses on outstretched hands.

Sue Fletcher is an animal lover at heart, it’s easy to see in the way she greets every creature she approaches, saying their name and stroking their heads lovingly.

She spent the first few years of her life on a farm in Englehart, in Northern Ontario, before moving into town. She has memories of being 12 years old, sneaking off to rent a horse at the local stable and ride with her friend.

She taught herself at a young age how to ride, but admits it wasn’t the safest idea. She later took lessons to solidify her skills and even confessed to her mother about her secret adventures on the trails.

Now she runs a summer riding camp at her stables on Rokeby Line – in the distance, woods surround the huge piece of land, creating a peaceful atmosphere and a sense of serenity. You almost forget you’re only 20 minutes from the city.

Fletcher and her husband first moved to the area about 15 years ago; they purchased the farm and at first used it for boarding horses. Soon, they began collecting more furry friends and fixing up the property as they went.

Now they hold lessons for all ages and summer camps for ages five to 12. Fletcher said they’ve been running the camps for about eight summers now, and the majority of those that come out are often first-time riders. The camps run from the time school is out until the third week of August, and Fletcher said her large team of staff and volunteers make sure the atmosphere is easygoing and judgement free.

“There’s no competition here, it’s to be a place where they felt safe coming,” she said. “They can wear whatever they want… they don’t feel judged… they feel safe and accepted.”

The camps give kids the full experience of what it means to care for a horse – from grooming and tacking, as well as other basic chores like dumping and refilling the water buckets, cleaning the stalls and feeding the animals.

“Anything that will teach them the basics of understanding what it takes to have a horse in their life,” Fletcher said.

Coming face to face with a 1,200-pound horse can be a bit daunting for some, so Fletcher will have anyone who is nervous interact with the miniature horses first. This gets them more

comfortable, and soon enough, they’ll be taking charge while riding one of the lesson horses, including Turbo, Smoke or Freddy.

But the horses do more than just teach kids responsibility. They also offer bonding experiences and interacting with them can change a child’s outlook on life, especially those who may be bullied at school or suffer from anxiety or depression. Fletcher said she herself was bullied at a young age, but animals were her escape from it all.

“Horses reflect what people are feeling, because they are so hyper aware of what’s going on,” she said. “They don’t judge you.”

Fletcher said the idea to run camps first came when giving lessons – some of the kids were shy and couldn’t look them in the eye. Some were teased at school and had low self-esteem, and wouldn’t confide in their parents. But the kids would confide in the horses, and Fletcher said the most beautiful thing about the camps is seeing the kids blossom and come into themselves.

“Two, three, four weeks of riding, you see their personalities completely change… they’re standing up taller,” she said. “Being in the same space as the horses, they just mellow me out…and it’s the same thing for the kids…it doesn’t matter if you’re five or 55, there’s just something about them.”

Fletcher hopes to one day run horse therapy sessions at the stables; she said that she’s seen it in action elsewhere and was amazed by what she saw.

“Anyone I’ve spoken to that’s doing it loves the results,” she said. “One session of equine therapy is equivalent to about five in a chair.”

Fletcher compares riding to meditating – you’re so focused on yourself and the horse that everything else just melts away, allowing you to destress. At the same time, it also builds confidence for a child to see they can control such a large animal.

“Having a little bit of control over their own world, when they know that they can handle a 1,000-pound horse,” she said. “It makes that bully at school seem not quite so big anymore.”