Finding four-legged therapy

Bia Mele displays her medal after participating in the Champlain Adaptive Mounted Program horse show on June 22. (Observer courtesy photo)
Bia Mele displays her medal after participating in the Champlain Adaptive Mounted Program horse show on June 22. (Observer courtesy photo)

By Stephanie Choate

Observer staff

Twelve-year-old Williston resident Bia Mele is a new rider, but an enthusiastic one.

“The horse’s energy kind of lifts up into you and it makes you relaxed and calm,” she said. “I like the feeling of it, physically and emotionally… it’s very, very therapeutic.”

Mele was one of several riders from Williston who took part in the Champlain Adaptive Mounted Program’s annual Memorial Horse Show Fundraiser, held June 22 at Good Hope Farm in South Hero.

Champlain Adaptive Mounted Program, known as CHAMP, provides horseback riding experiences for children and adults with special needs through lessons, camps and the annual horse show.

“It’s an allover good feeling when you ride,” said CHAMP Executive Director Jean Desranleau. “There’s something about the bond between the horse and a person.”

The program charges riders 25 percent of the cost of a lesson or camp, and makes up the rest through grants, donations and fundraisers like the horse show.

Mele went door-to-door, raising $150 to participate in the show. She also had the idea to approach Hannaford in Williston, which donated bags of carrots and apples and cases of bottled water.

“All the riders rode beautifully, better than ever, they just really stepped up,” Desranleau said. “I think they were very pleased to be showing families and friends what they’ve learned.”

Mele began taking lessons at the CHAMP stables earlier this summer, and is set to participate in the nonprofit’s summer camp in July.

“I ride Ladybug,” she said. “She’s just really sweet, but she’s also a treat hog.”

Mele praised the inclusive atmosphere at CHAMP.

“I think differently, and it’s really hard when lot of people are like, ‘Why do you think that way?’ and ‘How come you don’t understand this?’” she said. “A lot of people are rude and not understanding and I wish more people were understanding. CHAMP is really, really understanding and accepting, because there we’ve all had a challenge.”

Mele said it is hard for her to read what people are thinking through facial expressions and body language. People often don’t understand the effects of autism spectrum disorder, and she loves that CHAMP doesn’t judge her.

“They don’t give me that weird look most people do because they really know how it is to feel like that,” she said. “No matter how different you are or what your problem is, they’re going to care. ”

She also enjoys the diversity CHAMP offers—she rides with adults and children of all different backgrounds and abilities. Mele often rides with another Williston resident who participates.

“She’s really sweet and a really good rider,” she said. “The best thing about her is she’s just a really great kid. She might not understand how to do nuclear physics or add or subtract, but she loves what she does and she’s proud of what she does.”

Lori Mele, Bia’s mother, said CHAMP is one of the adventure camps her daughter is trying this summer, and it is proving helpful.

“When we leave a lesson and are in the car driving away from Good Hope Farm, Bia’s like ‘I can’t wait till next Saturday,’” Mele said. “All the people in CHAMP have been so supportive and really amazed by Bia’s ability and balance.”

Desranleau says she loves watching a sense of calm descend over each rider as they get on a horse and smiles immediately light up their faces.

She described one particularly joyous girl in a riding group with local nonprofit Partners in Adventure on Tuesday morning.

“We were out on a trail ride and all of a sudden she goes, ‘I’m so happy,’” Desranleau said.

Mele said she has wanted to try horseback riding since she was a little girl—and has no intention of giving it up now that she has gotten a taste.

“I don’t care if I have to go out and buy a horse against my parent will, I will keep riding,” she said.

She is set to attend a CHAMP summer camp in July, and is unreservedly looking forward to it.

“CHAMP is just so amazing,” she said. “If I could recommend any camp in the whole entire world I would recommend CHAMP because it really is the best.”