Lillith Rosenberg

Forward-thinking therapy at Saanich ranch

Forward Equestrian and Wellness Centre focuses on equine-assisted therapy for kids and adults with autism and brain injuries

In true World Cup spirit, Taz was up to his soccer playing tricks on Wednesday.

The 22-year-old pony can still gallop, an impressive feat for the senior citizen that he is. But it’s nothing compared to the mean game of soccer he still possesses.

A visitor to Forward Equestrian and Wellness Centre passes him his red soccer ball, which is one metre in diameter. He not only tracks it down gently, acutely aware of five-year-old Lillith Rosenberg on his back, but he also returns the pass with authority.

This horse can play.

“Walk on now Taz,” commands Lillith, as the old boy leaves the ball behind and trots her around the arena at the Saanich centre, which focuses on equine-assisted therapy, equestrian lessons, training and related programs for children and adults with autism or brain injuries. Forward is run by Rebecca Phillips.

“We use evidence-based techniques to help people become grounded with the animals by connecting with a living being,” Phillips said.

Several types of therapists are brought in for occupation and physical services, and all have equine experience to help visitors connect.

Forward offers a variety of programs, including lessons for the public and Hoofbeats, an early childhood education program where preschoolers can get outside and interact with horses.

Lillith came to Forward two months ago, and is now a regular at the Wilkinson Road ranch. When she’s there, she is no longer an autistic five-year-old struggling to fit in with others her age. Instead, she’s a comfortable kid who can let go of the unique fears that come with autism, such as the feeling of long grass, which she’ll happily rip out of the ground and feed to Taz, says mom Cassie Hooker.

“Bringing Lillith here is like nothing else,” Cassie says. “She talks about it all week; asking, ‘When can I ride Taz?’”

In contrast, if Lillith is walking in her downtown North Park neighbourhood she’ll make a detour to avoid a seedy sidewalk dandelion.

“Her confidence has increased tenfold since riding here, she’s almost non-autistic when here,” says dad Keith Rosenberg.

As parents of an autistic child under age six, Keith and Cassie qualify for $22,000 towards therapy and other programs for Lillith. It still leaves them short of the necessary funds to put Lillith into the nature- and equine-based kindergarten at Forward in September. “We want to set her up here for life,” Keith says.

The parents are about to get another $22,000 for their second child, three-year-old Colin, who has also been diagnosed with autism. Colin, too, is excited to get on a horse.

There are 17 horses at Forward, all of them with skills that help the animals adapt to the special needs of individual riders.

“This is only my second time on Sookie, but she’s starting to adapt to me,” said rider Kim Scott, 19. Having cerebral palsy can make it hard to ride a horse, but the horses at Forward are patient, she says.

Scott’s regular horse, Adam, is taking a break to regain his strength, but they’ll soon train together again and are scheduled to return to national level para-equestrian competition this summer.

In addition, Scott says Adam helped her manage her mental health, part of her generalized anxiety treatment at Forward.

Forward Equestrian is holding an open house tomorrow (June 14) from 1 to 3 p.m. at 4420 Wilkinson Rd.

reporter@saanichnews.com

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