Text Christine Hugo
Life is a balancing act. It’s tricky. People like to watch acrobats walking on tightropes or gymnasts doing somersaults on a narrow bar or ballerinas gracefully mastering an arabesque on the tip of their toes. Balance is beautiful.
It is also hard and elusive to achieve. For all the extraordinary things we accomplish, modern society seems unable to find the balance that human beings need to live beautiful lives. How much harder is must be for children with mental and emotional disabilities who are still struggling to formulate their sentences, or to communicate at all.
For the special children of Dagbreek School, the first step towards balance does not simply involve better time management or determination. What they need is a process, often a slow, very delicate process of emotional development to help break though the barriers of their unique individual situations and bring a little bit of happiness, confidence and purpose to balance their world.
Vesta Burmeister is not a horse whisperer. She is a facilitator. She does her recreational therapy on a farm just outside Windhoek, where you can smell the earth, feel the sun on your face and see the trees and mountains. This is what she refers to as her ‘office’ and it is here that the horses do the whispering.
For the young Vesta, this career path allowed her to combine her passion for nature with her desire to help people improve their quality of life
For the last couple of years, Vesta has been working with the special-needs children of Dagbreek School, children who are challenged by mental and also physical problems, some as a result of conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism and Down’s syndrome, and others due to traumatic experiences that have simply obstructed their normal development.
Vesta is a qualified recreational therapist. A Namibian-born girl who grew up riding horses and camping out in the veld, she graduated from the State University of California with a degree in Recreation Therapy, and specialised in horse training with the North American Riding for Handicapped Association. A relatively new field, Recreation Therapy is defined by the American Therapeutic Recreation Association (ATRA) as ‘a health care and human service discipline that delivers treatment services designed to restore, remediate and/or rehabilitate functional capabilities for persons with injuries, chronic illnesses and all types of disabling conditions’. For the young Vesta, this career path allowed her to combine her passion for nature, and horses in particular, with her desire to help people improve their quality of life.
She started her practice two years ago and invested in horses, equipment and the hiring and training of staff. Her success quickly earned her a reputation as a therapist with private clients.
However, a sponsorship by Letshego Namibia changed the landscape of her career and made it possible for her to reach out to the special needs children of Dagbreek School, children whose parents didn’t have the means to afford such therapy, but who could benefit greatly from it.
“It is a big thing for a child to sit on a horse. Many grown-ups are too scared to do it,” Vesta says
“Some of these children were too scared to touch a horse when they first came to me,” says Vesta, describing the journey of therapy. “The wonderful thing about being on the back of a horse is that horses move three-dimensionally, just like we do. This means that children’s bodies are naturally directed to move in ways that involve and strengthens the muscles they need to use. This develops their core-muscle stability and greatly improves the vestibular system in the brain that regulates our sense of balance. This sense of balance makes them feel more in control, which is most empowering.”
But the biggest element of the therapy that happens on the farm is not physical. It happens when the child connects with the horse on a different level, a mysterious connection that they cannot seem to form with humans. “It is a big thing for a child to sit on a horse. Many grown-ups are too scared to do it,” Vesta says. “One eleven-year-old little girl came to therapy for two years without once getting on the horse. But then she slowly went closer and closer. She started touching the horse. Eventually I knew the time was right and I simply picked her up and put her on the horse. That day the triumph, the absolute overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment of that charmed moment changed this shy little girl’s world. It changed how she saw herself. For other people this would seem insignificant, but to her it was a real breakthrough.”
“One of the other children, a little boy of ten, could not speak at all when he started therapy. Mentally retarded because of emotional trauma, he could not form words and communicated through a kind of sign language and drawing. Over the months he fostered a mysterious relationship with the horse and eventually started talking to it. It took two years, but he is speaking now. He speaks to me and to other people.”
The therapeutic value of the horses has made such a big difference that teachers at the school noticed improvement in various other levels of the children’s development. A six-year-old boy with autism developed the ability to grasp and follow instructions though the horse therapy, which indicates tremendous growth and development.
Because the horse is a live animal, the relationship between rider and horse is authentic. It does not allow for prejudice or manipulation
The therapy, to begin with, starts with a basic assessment. Vesta listens, watches and talks to the children, and to their parents, teachers and guardians. “Every child who enters therapy needs a unique approach. The process starts with them just being outside in the veld, surrounded by nature,” Vesta explains. “I have always found being in nature therapeutic and I know how it can heal.”
After an assessment, the therapy begins, first with touching and grooming the horses, getting onto the back of a horse, walking around and becoming comfortable. Eventually the children do different exercises on horseback, such as putting loops over sticks held out to them, balancing on their knees and even standing up on the horse while it moves.
Because the horse is a live animal, the relationship between rider and horse is authentic. It does not allow for prejudice or manipulation. The therapy draws on some intangible exchange of energy between the child in need and the animal, a dynamic that transcends conventional ideas about people, animals and therapy.
As Vesta says, the horse is indeed the therapist and she as facilitator must manage the process with the utmost care and attention, a skill that is as much about intuition as it is about training and education. “The success of the therapy is based on a perfect balance between the fear or challenge presented by the horse and the competence of the patient to overcome his or her fear by getting on and riding that horse. If you fall short on either, you will miss the point. But if you can find that perfect balance, if you can time it just right, the achievement will be real. That is the ultimate experience.”
Unfortunately the sponsorship agreement came to an end and Vesta’s work with the Dagbreek children had to be put on hold. Sporadic investments by organisations such as the Round Table have allowed her to continue work on an ad hoc basis, so at least the therapy with the children is not completely compromised and hopefully she will be able to secure a more permanent sponsorship to keep the children in therapy and continue to make a difference.
A human being’s sense of pride, of belonging or of being okay is not something you can orchestrate. You cannot patronise or convince anyone to find the balance in his or her soul. People like Vesta can use their gifts and skills to bring the people who need them in contact with horses and to guide the process. The gift of achievement, the confidence, the improvement in quality of life, they earn themselves. Through the therapy they find their balance. And it is beautiful.
This article appeared in the Sept’11 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.