Boguslawa Syrotiak - Equine Therapy in Argentina
I spent 10 wonderful weeks volunteering on the Equine Therapy placement in Cordoba, Argentina last year. This was my first time volunteering abroad. This was my first time staying in South America. It was also my first time travelling alone for another purpose than visiting my family in Poland. I am so happy that I did decide to go and volunteer in Argentina despite my fears.
I chose Argentina because I have some friends here in the States who come from Argentina. Argentina also has a good safety record compared to some other countries. It has this reputation of being similar to Europe and I have to say that it is true. The Argentinean Projects Abroad office is run very efficiently. I was briefed on the second day of my stay in Argentina on all the dos and don’ts, how tos and treated to a delicious lunch. The food in Argentina with its extraordinary meats is simply irresistible. Thank you to the Projects Abroad staff!
My equine therapy placement in Argentina
The volunteer experience was priceless. Really the best thing I have ever done! Veronica founded the Equine Therapy centre in 1989 and it has become such an amazing opportunity for the children to come and interact with horses and benefit in tremendous ways. Veronica is a very loving, energetic and charismatic person who cares for her little and not so little patients. She would often speak with tears in her eyes about her patients’ struggles, their parents’ dedication and love. She took care of us volunteers like a mother. She treated us well, respectfully, and with humour. She would make us meriendas (afternoon snack), usually bread with dulce de leche or cookies and soda or hot chocolate. After I got back to the United States, I went and bought dulce de leche. Whenever I eat it, I think of Veronica and the other volunteers. Veronica took us volunteers under her wing and treated us like family from the first day on the job. She told us that her home is our home. It felt just like that.
The Equine Therapy centre is run very well. We would see 3 to 5 patients between 4pm and 7pm. The patients’ ages varied from pre-schoolers to adults. Their parents or caregivers would usually accompany them. Sometimes one of them would bring musical instruments and we conducted therapy to the rhythm of music. The kids loved it. We loved it. The atmosphere at the centre was always upbeat, happy, and everybody gave their all to facilitate the best therapy session for the child. Veronica gave us instructions and demonstrated how to facilitate the child’s movements on the horse.
How equine therapy helps people with disabilities
Sometimes a volunteer would sit with the child on the horse with or without a saddle, depending on the child’s age and level of disability or riding skills. The diagnoses of the children would vary from cerebral palsy, autism, ADHD, developmental delays, to traumatic brain injury. This was very interesting from an occupational therapist’s stand point. The Equine Therapy applies the Tango Method. The tridimensional pattern of movement of the horse translates and facilitates the tridimensional pattern of movement of the rider. It is a very good way to facilitate muscular strength, coordination, normal movement patterns, visual perceptual skills, and confidence.
Equine Therapy brings benefits to the body, mind and spirit. The interactions between the child and the pony were very touching. A one hour therapy session would usually start by having the child brush the horse’s mane and pet the horse. At the end of the session, the child would reward the pony by feeding it a carrot. The kids would giggle when the pony dropped the carrot, drooled, or did something funny. The kids were obviously mesmerized by the ponies and became very attached.
Some kids would at first be afraid in the presence of a big animal, but once they climbed on top, they regained that confidence and a big smile. They would pet the pony while riding it, change riding positions with help of volunteers from facing forward to facing backwards, or lying on the belly and pretending to be taking a nap. Veronica would instruct us how to turn a therapy session into play and achieve our therapy goals while having fun.
Our responsibilities at the placement
Our responsibilities as volunteers would include cleaning the outside area where the horses stand, cleaning the horses themselves with brushes, cleaning their hair and feet, putting saddles on them before therapy, warming up the horses before therapy by riding them for about 10 minutes from slow to fast, bringing the horses to the riding arena, and assisting our little patients. We would bring the riding vests, helmets, and chaps for the patients. Help them get dressed and mount the horse.
We would either sit with the child on top of the horse or walk at his or her side of each side of the horse. In either case, there would be volunteers walking closely alongside the horse with the child on top of the horse. We would watch out for the safety of the patients and our own. Veronica taught us how to safely handle a horse, how to approach it, saddle it up, and walk alongside.
If you decide to volunteer in Equine Therapy, expect to get dirty. The work involves walking in the sand and cleaning the outside areas as well as the horses. Every night after work, I would scrub the dust off my feet. Having comfy clothes and protective shoe wear is a good idea. Veronica has helmets, chaps, and vests and she always makes sure that they are worn while riding her horses. In Veronica’s therapy centre safety is number one!
I had the big honour to be able to attend a course on Equine Therapy organized by Veronica. It was amazing. She would have different healthcare professionals come to the course and teach us the basic and not so basics of Equine Therapy. It was very interesting to meet other professionals from Argentina. I made long lasting friendships with Argentinean healthcare professionals. I have learned lots and lots about Equine Therapy in Argentina and in general. I even received a completion certification that counts towards my PDU’s that I need to maintain in order to maintain my occupational therapy licensure in the United States.
My host family
The host family I stayed with for two months was fantastic. After the initial period of time of adjusting to a different meal schedule and a new spoken language, it felt like home. Alicia, my host mom, has become my best friend. I cherished my time with her. We had this ritual of having lunch together and watching a TV show. Alicia would always ask me how I was, how my day was, and be so caring towards me. At the same time, I had my freedom and I was not obligated to attend meals or be home at a certain time.
Alicia always cooked healthy food and I enjoyed every bit of it. Her milanesas, salads, and squash were absolutely yummy. It took me about one week to get used to the different meal schedule and different foods. Her four beautiful and delightful daughters have become like my sisters. Two of them will get married this year and I am going to the first wedding this March. I am very excited to go back and see my host family again.
I have benefited in many ways from my volunteer trip to Argentina. I made new friends for life. I learned a great deal about Equine Therapy in Argentina and in general. I love horses and I got to spend lots of time with them in a beautiful green setting of the centre. I have improved my horseback riding skills which makes me very happy and makes me safer on trail rides for fun in the United States.
I also attended a Spanish course with Projects Abroad and greatly improved my language skills by a total immersion in Argentinean culture. I was exposed to a new culture, lifestyle and I have seen the most beautiful landscapes. I have travelled Argentina starting in Cordoba and ending in Ushuaia, the end of the world as they call it. I cannot find enough words to praise my volunteer experience in Argentina. I am looking forward to another volunteer trip with Projects Abroad.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.