When Latifa Momenah saw children go from wheelchairs to riding and walking, she knew she had to train as a therapeutic horse-riding instructor.
"I just knew this is what I had to do," she says. “I knew I had to learn and have to keep this going for my community."
In March 2021, Latifa opened Wesal AlKhair, the Horse Connection, in Jeddah, a ranch where people with physical and mental disabilities can ride.
“The best part about what we do is the feedback we receive from mothers who say they couldn't have imagined their child would walk again, which was a dream come true and that this has helped them back up on their feet," she says.
Horse riding has long been used for therapy and rehabilitation as it can help with a number of behavioural and physical issues. Riding can help improve balance, muscle control, motor development and co-ordination as well as balance and posture.
But opening Wesal AlKhair was a long road for Latifa. She first found out about therapeutic riding in 2009 and volunteered with a similar programme in Jeddah while at university.
After, Latifa went on to specialise in therapeutic horse riding in the US through an intensive two-month course in 2012 before going to do her master's in finance in Ireland. When she returned to Saudi Arabia in 2017, she found out that the programme she had volunteered with while at university had shut down. That's when she decided to launch Wesal AlKhair.
"I've been working on the process for five years with all the challenges including logistics, finding the horses, Covid-19, government regulations and finance, but we managed," she says. She now employs seven trainers and they have eight horses.
"In June 2021, I trained seven people within my house and shared my knowledge, all that I learnt in the US, with my entire team to give them the tools needed to help and serve more riders as much as possible."
She said for her, it's not about being the first Saudi therapeutic horse-riding instructor, it's about being able to "make a difference and spread the knowledge" to benefit others.
"Our aim is to be Saudi's certified leading international therapeutic riding programme in the region and to serve many more riders."
She said therapeutic riding helps the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of people with special needs.
"We take them in and assess and train them, individually to help them not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. Each person is looking for something different, so we cater to that," she says.
In total there are eight horses at Wesal AlKhair, "all in training to ride with handicapped children but currently, three are ready".
Latifa says the ranch uses retired horses or those over 15 years of age.
"It was tough getting the horses," she admits, adding that she went "door to door in Riyadh and in Jeddah" to look for retired horses or older ones that "aren't too hyper" for kids with special needs.
"We have around 30 people enrolled, and sometimes if someone's brother wants to ride a horse, we allow that because we don't want them to feel like there's a difference ― and for all of them to feel the same.
"We accept all disabilities. It helps motivate them and give them self-confidence as well."
The team at Wesal AlKhair assesses all new riders, their personality, behaviour, mental status and ability.
Latifa says horses "move a lot like humans and so the activity helps move muscles and our body" that aids physical movement for those who cannot walk, which "sends a message to the brain that this muscle is working and over a period of time, it helps the core muscles and balance".
She says the horses go through extensive training to ensure the safety of all participants.
"Kids even play basketball while horse-riding. We spent a year training them," she says.
While some focus on general equine knowledge, horse behaviour, communication and social skills, the ranch also offers hippotherapy which is a physical, occupational and speech therapy that uses the natural gait and movement of a horse to provide motor and sensory input.
Hippotherapy is based on the improvement of "neurologic functions, and sensory processes", mainly used for people with physical and mental disorders.
Latifa trains riders at her academy every weekend and each rider has three volunteers dedicated to them — two side walkers and a leader.
"We give people a chance to volunteer and give back to our community."