Hope Reins at Vandergragt horse farm

Owners wanting community input on special needs programming

Program director Alison Vandergragt, far left, is pictured here with pony Tucker; and co-facilitators Kate Vandergragt, middle, riding Minuet; and Marie Reaume, next to an appaloosa named Indiana. Photo Christine Hudder

Staff Reporter

KILLALOE – It started out as a dream to escape the bright lights of the city. Now, the Vanderbook Farm and Natural Horsemanship Centre is changing the lives of people with autism, Down syndrome and many other developmental disabilities.

Thirteen years ago, Alison and her husband Nick Vandergragt moved the family from south western Ontario up to Killaloe. They wanted to live on a quiet hobby farm, with a few horses.

Eventually, the family of 10 accumulated several horses – more than anticipated – and residents began inquiring about riding lessons. The family decided to offer some lessons to the public. But as the years progressed, relatives of people with special needs began inquiring about programming.

Around four years ago, the farm started shifting from offering regular riding lessons to focusing on equine assisted therapy and learning.

“I have to say this is bigger than a dream come true, because I don’t think we would ever first of all, be on a real, true, working farm with horses. That was something that I think may have been out of our reach for a long time,” program director Alison said. “What’s more, we never thought we would be making this much of an impact.”

Last fall was a giant step forward for the local farm, Alison said. It teamed up with the Phoenix Centre in Pembroke and took its psychotherapy lessons out of the office and into the arena.

A variety of at-risk youth and other clients took part in the pilot program. The activities had the clients work with the horses. Each lesson had a common goal; one would bring out success, another would bring out sadness. All of them taught the value of problem solving.

“Out of the 12 clients that we saw, most of them had experienced a profound experience in their ability to deal with the challenges that were given to them,” Alison explained.

Story continues in the March 29, 2012 issue of The Valley Gazette.