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How Diva Makes Every Day Special

Jan Norman meets Diva, an equine therapy horse bringing joy to kids and families at a hospice in South Africa…

A beautiful bay mare with long, elegant and expressive ears stood waiting in the paddock. Here was Diva, a wonderful horse that has overcome troubles of her own and is now changing the lives of children at a hospice in South Africa. The Iris House Hospice is a remarkable organisation that provides free therapies, hospice and community-based respite care as well as end of life care for special needs children with life threatening illness and or life limiting conditions in the Western Cape of South Africa.

They are largely funded by donations and support more than 500 children and their families. Diva brings true joy and helps the hospice achieve its ultimate goal for its kids and families: “Let’s make every day a special day”

It is difficult to imagine the young Diva arriving a few years ago after being rescued by the Cart Horse Protection Association. A late weaned, very attached and needy mare with almost zero handling; Diva’s mother had been a cart horse but Diva herself was barely halter-trained. Four years later, after kind and gentle training by horse trainer and qualified equine behaviourist, Alan Lockwood, she is truly the polar opposite of her name. Her partner in equine therapy is Viltalgo, a striking cross-saddler chestnut mare.

It would be difficult to find a more reliable, kindhearted and gracious horse. The pair do therapy work twice a week, which includes simple interaction sessions with children who are unable to ride. Each child has a bespoke programme depending on their special needs and there are countless stories of huge improvements including one little girl who spoke for the first time. Social interaction and muscle strength are also key areas where ongoing equine therapy has made a big difference. But maybe the best of all is simply the pure joy that the children experience in the presence of a horse.

On meeting Diva for the first time, one could be surprised that such a youthful, sparky mare is actually a therapy horse for children. Sue van de Linde (founder and CEO) and Alan explained that before the therapy sessions they take Diva and her stable mate Viltalgo out on a relaxed hack. The two mares strode out of the gate with energetic enthusiasm and have learnt that this is the routine. Some fun in the sun and then on to the serious business of delivering love, laughter and happiness to their special-needs clients.

Half an hour later, they were back from their outride with a new air of calm, soft eyes and a ready-to-work attitude. First in line was a Down Syndrome child who was experiencing the interaction with a horse for the first time. For now it would just be touching and maybe a ride after a few weeks. She reached out to Diva with a caress that was so gentle you would imagine Diva’s nose was as fragile as silk thread. It was a moment that underpinned one of Iris House’s missions: “We aim to make every day a special day.” And special it was while Diva stood quietly and allowed her muzzle to be stroked.

As the next child arrived, Diva gravitated spontaneously to the wheelchair. She dropped her nose into Tessa’s lap and invited cuddles or anything else that came her way, even some vigorous hand-waving. Diva took it all in her stride like a seasoned professional complete with lovingly drooped eyelids, secure in the knowledge that she is adored…as befits a star-performer. It was Jamie’s entrance from “stage-left” that stole the show for me…

On uneven limbs and with some haste, she was up the mounting block in a flash leaving her carer like the paparazzi in hot pursuit. Jamie’s exuberance to mount Diva turned into a heart melting moment once she was astride. She went completely still, she laid her head into Diva’s mane, closed her eyes, beamed a beautiful smile and took a moment to breathe and savour the joy. Jamie’s love for Diva and her happiness was palpable and almost too precious and too private to witness. A few seconds later though Jamie was ready for action and a few circuits of the yard followed. Her legs lengthened, her posture straightened, her smile got bigger, her carers loosened their grip and there she was riding Diva the dream horse. With little whoops of glee and cries of “Just one more time” and eventually “Goodbye Diva; I love you Diva”.

Original article: https://www.fei.org/stories/diva-equine-therapy-horse-south-africa