In the presence of Anita Shkedi, a former rabbi’s wife from the north of England, who has spent her working life helping people of all ages, creeds and religions to overcome physical or mental disability by participating in horse riding, it is humbling to see what she and her team at the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association (INTRA) have created at their excellent riding centre at Neurim, just north of Netanya.
The sad truth is that good news doesn’t sell papers and is always an after-thought on news broadcasts and bulletins, especially in this much troubled land, but for once I think we should have it in all of us to appreciate something that is a reflection of selfless dedication and a desire to improve the lives of others, whoever they are, and wherever they come from. At the end of the day, whether male or female, child or adult, whatever the religious conviction, when you are injured by a major traumatic event or suffer as the result of illness, we all feel the same pain and anguish.
Anita, (whose eldest son Jonathan tragically died in 1993 as the result of injuries sustained during military service in Lebanon), was the first to introduce therapeutic riding to Israel back in the mid-1980’s and is now regarded as an international expert in her field. With a superb team of staff and volunteers headed by her second husband Giora, Anita has managed to create a place where both able bodied and handicapped people can come together to jointly experience the therapeutic benefits of being involved in a ‘hands on’ way with horses.
Recently, I received an inspiring and intensely moving short video presentation (below) about the ongoing aspirations of INTRA, and their desire to offer more help to the growing number of people who have realised what a huge difference therapeutic riding can make to their lives. I defy you to watch the film and not find a lump appearing in your throat or tears welling up in your eyes.
My two able-bodied daughters learned to ride there, and I decided it was about time I dropped in again at INTRA to see for myself just how things are going at the stable yard on the cliffs high above the Mediterranean Sea, no more than 50 yards as the crow flies from the shimmering blue waters. The day I visited I was feeling decidedly grumpy and somewhat out of friends with the world, but from the moment I pulled into the car park and watched a group of young kids riding with abundant joie de vivre, my spirits started to lift.
Anita was busy talking with a group of visitors so I went and had a look around the immaculately kept stables where the carefully selected horses, many of which are specially brought over from Europe to provide the safest possible conveyance imaginable for handicapped riders, are kept at a standard that compares favourably with the best similar establishments overseas.
It’s not a question of money – something always in short supply at a centre almost totally supported by donations, especially in these challenging financial times – that makes this yard so impressive. It’s a question of applied discipline and attention to detail that is Anita’s hallmark; taking no short cuts, ensuring the horses are lovingly cared for, well fed and groomed, and that the riders respect their mounts and treat them as a friend. In return, the horses invariably behave impeccably, something which cannot be said of a great many riding stables around this country where many of the equine inhabitants are as hot tempered and unpredictable as their human counterparts!
There truly are no short cuts when it comes to creating an ideal environment for horse and rider, something that is constantly impressed on everyone who comes to ride or visit. When you encounter someone who has been struck down by a severe illness, been the victim of a road accident, a casualty of war or terrorism, or suffers from a condition like cerebral palsy or stroke, it is truly humbling to see them rising, (often from a wheelchair), to sit atop an attractive, well behaved horse, then see dedicated team members lovingly assist them as they ride and use muscles that respond positively to the movement of the horse, muscles that often have failed to respond to more traditional methods of treatment.
You only have to spend a few minutes at INTRA to realise that you are very lucky to be blessed with good health and have not been so unfortunate as to be the victim of a chance incident that in the blink of eye can transform you from a previously healthy, active and capable person, into someone who needs constant care and attention and is severely limited in being able to take care of their own needs.
Watching children, young adults, and older riders respond to professional therapeutic riding care, (a process recognised as a significantly successful treatment by Israeli health care providers and the relevant governmental departments), is simply an uplifting experience. It makes you feel privileged to be present to witness such near-miraculous transformations in the riders, whose self-confidence rises before your eyes and whose joy is reflected in every gesture and movement, no matter how limited their degree of expression might have become.
There are times when we all come close to despairing at the often troubling events here in Israel, but in such as Anita, Giora, and their team at INTRA, there is proof positive that there is so much that is good in the Israeli people if we only but rise above the sensationalism and angst and see for ourselves what can be done when those with determination and generosity of spirit really want to achieve something special.