'Help Needed': SARI therapeutic riding school loses 80 per cent of volunteers due to pandemic

Staff and volunteers saddle up a horse ahead of a riding lesson at SARI Therapeutic Riding near London, Ont., Monday, July 19, 2021. (Jordyn Read / CTV News)

SARI, a local therapeutic riding school for people with special needs, is officially up and riding this summer after months of being closed due to the pandemic. The SARI team is happy to have cleared that jump, but now they’re facing a new obstacle on the course.

“The volunteers are very much the backbone of SARI’s operations, we couldn’t do it without them,” says SARI Executive Director Janine Langley.

The charitable program that is known for helping others is now in desperate need of helpers of their own.

“We are totally dependent on our volunteers, we have a very, very small staff and we cannot operate without the volunteers to support our riders,” says Terry Power, volunteer coordinator and event support staffer at SARI.

For nearly 16 months, volunteers were unable to join the team at SARI due to the pandemic.

In that time period, many moved on to other things, causing an 80 per cent drop in available volunteers.

Langley says the team needs approximately 250 volunteers on the roster to operate the riding school at its best capacity.

Right now the team is operating with 50 volunteers.


SARI Executive Director Janine Langley. (Jordyn Read / CTV News)

"It’s been really difficult to recruit volunteers getting back up to our base level needed…We have lots of eager participants waiting at home for our programs to open but it's all dependent on our volunteers returning.”

Power has been trying to get the word out so more riders can get back in the saddle come September.

"The most important role for our volunteers, and the one we need so many for, is actually physically participating in the lessons. All of our riders have gone through an assessment and the majority of them need someone to get the horse ready and lead the horse in the lesson and then two (volunteers) side walk, they actually provide that physical support for the riders.”

Power says up to seven volunteers can be required per riding lesson, but the standard amount is three.

“I don’t think there is anything more rewarding than animal assisted therapy, being able to see the difference this makes in peoples lives and knowing riders couldn’t be here without their support…it is rewarding for our riders but just as rewarding for our volunteers."

A volunteer has to be at least 14 years old and comfortable around horses, but they do not need previous experience handling one.

“I have been here for six years and I am not a rider, I knew nothing about horses when I started but they teach you everything and the people are wonderful,” says volunteer Donna Murray.

In the coming weeks SARI will be holding eight orientations to recruit 200 volunteers for September. To learn more click here.