Those who find horses help their mental health will be galloping to the Walkabout Farm Therapeutic Riding Association after it obtained an exemption on April 21 to partially open.

The Minden-based not-for-profit, which offers several programs including for children with special needs, had closed March 15 after getting deemed nonessential. But the association worked to get an exemption for its mental health support services, allowing limited numbers to visit and work with the horses.

Owner and operator Jennifer Semach said it was fortunate. Although they had been offering some remote support to clients, without direct programming, they were in danger of closing due to lost funding.

“We were definitely at risk of having to close permanently because, of course, the horses, whether we’re open or not, required $1,500 to $2,500 to support their care,” she said, adding dozens, if not hundreds, of families would feel the loss of the location.

Families access different government funding streams to use Walkabout’s programming, Semach said. But with direct services suspended during the crisis, that funding was effectively frozen for it and other special needs programs.

“It definitely made me feel like there was a certain demographic that was being unsupported by our government,” Semach said. “We can’t pause that type of support that people with special needs have … You can’t do that to them when they rely on certain services for their quality of life and care.”

Semach said Walkabout fell into a grey area in the province’s restrictions. After a complicated process, she was able to get the exemption, adding she received a lot of support from Haliburton-Kawartha LakesBrock MPP Laurie Scott’s office.

The location is still closed to the general public and the number of people will be limited, with extra sanitation precautions, Semach said. Riding will also not be possible due to social distancing rules, but clients can still come to spend time with the horses.

One of them is Joel McWhirter, a 10-yearold from Huntsville who attends Walkabout regularly. His mother Lisa McWhirter said he has challenges with self-worth and finding his place and the farm has made a big difference.

“We’ve been going just since the fall and it was immediate for him how much, just being at the farm, made him feel happy and engaged,” McWhirter said. “He’s been able to very quickly establish a connection.”

McWhirter said she noticed a negative response from her son when he was no longer able to visit the farm, though Semach was keeping him engaged through online calling. “Ten minutes (after) he’s stepped on the farm, there is just some wonderful peace that comes to him,” McWhirter said. “There’s definitely been some positive and bright spots with the pandemic but for Joel, he really needs that connection physically.”

Semach said she anticipates helping between 25 to 30 families during the pandemic, though many more cannot attend as their needs make social distancing rules impossible.

“We’re hoping this won’t last much longer and we’re hoping we can help as many families as possible,” Semach said. “But it will be some time until we can help everybody.”

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