University of Victoria

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Saddle Support

Riding a gentle pony named Danny is a highly therapeutic and enjoyable experience for Whitney Morgan. Not only does the activity provide a new perspective and wonderful sense of freedom; it also encourages the 26-year-old to strengthen her core muscles while relaxing the extremely tight muscles in her limbs.

Whitney had to ride lying down and facing backward.Unfortunately, Whitney's severe cerebral palsy makes riding unaided in an upright position impossible. Instead, she has had to ride lying on her stomach and, because of the natural incline of a horse's back, facing backwards, with her legs near Danny's neck.

Not surprisingly, Whitney longed to be able to sit upright and face forward when riding. So she and her support worker, Kim, contacted CanAssist.

“The instructors had tried using an upside-down chair made of foam but it really wasn't working,” says Mike Jackman, of CanAssist's engineering team. “It was just a couple of pieces of foam held together, so it didn't offer the proper support Whitney needed.”

The CanAssist team thought a firm but comfortable foam wedge would work. But they knew they were in for a challenge when Stella French, a riding instructor at the Victoria Riding for the Disabled Association, said they couldn't fasten the support to the horse; nor could they buckle Whitney to the support. There were two reasons: if the horse got spooked, Whitney needed to be able to fall away immediately; in addition, it was important to be able to put on and remove the support quickly so as to keep to the schedule riders waiting for a turn on Danny.

CanAssist's Andy (left) and Mike make several trips to the stables to ensure the Saddle Support is safe and comfortable.“The instructors did agree to velcro straps that overlapped one inch, since they tear away easily but still prevent the wedge from slipping,” says Mike. “It was also important for Whitney to be able to look out over the device, but still have a place to rest her chin if her neck muscles get tired.”

Mike and co-op student Andy Huerlimann purchased a queen-sized mattress made of dense foam. They had to create a very large set of customized calipers in order to accurately measure the horse. They entered these dimensions into a computer program. Then they built a hot wire cutter, using it to meticulously carve the costly foam into three precise pieces.

“The measurements of a horse aren't consistent from front to back, so we had to cut three vertical sections to match the changing contour of the horse,” explains Mike. “Then we glued them all together and covered them in marine-grade vinyl.”

A cozy, felt cloth, which was attached with velcro on top, can easily be removed and washed, an important consideration since the riding association plans to use the support for other riders with similar needs as Whitney.

On delivery day, Whitney is excited to finally be able to sit upright and see where she's going while riding Danny. Whitney's instructor, Stella (shown right), stands nearby at all times.It was clear that Whitney was thrilled when she tried out the Saddle Support for the first time. In the weeks that followed, CanAssist was equally thrilled with the rave reviews that came from her riding instructors, family and support workers.

“Already, in the couple of weeks, we have seen a big improvement in Whitney's riding position and her ability to participate in the class activities,” said Stella.

Kim, Whitney's support worker, says the device has resulted in impressive therapeutic benefits.

“Her legs are relaxing more readily, her ability to remain balanced and centered on Danny is wonderful, and she is interacting in a more hands-on way during her lesson,” says Kim. “I can not thank CanAssist enough for making Whitney‘s dream of riding forward a reality. I know Whitney loves the freedom!”

The development of Whitney's Saddle Support was very generously funded by the Norgaard Foundation.

The following video was created by Shaw TV South Vancouver Island:


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