Christopher A. Dawson, MD
Tidewater Physicians Multispecialty Group
Horses can change lives. Walking beside riders with physical or emotional challenges, Christopher Dawson, MD, sees it in their smiles and hears it in their joy-filled laughter.
Volunteering for Dream Catchers, a nonprofit in James City County, has turned Dr. Dawson, a Pain Medicine specialist, into a passionate ambassador for equine-assisted activities and therapies. He has served on the organization’s Advisory Board since 2017.
“It’s not just beneficial for the participant, but for the family members, as well,” he says. “They realize how important a session is to the participant’s physical and emotional well-being, and how these benefits carry over to school and home life. I realize how my little bit of time and effort has such enormous value.”
Dream Catchers was founded in 1993 by two nurses from Cumberland Hospital, a residential facility in New Kent, that offers integrated medical, rehabilitative, behavioral and educational services to children and teenagers. In 2004, the Cori Sikich Therapeutic Riding Center became Dream Catchers’ home. Named after a competitive horseback rider and former Williamsburg resident who died in 2002 of an eating disorder at the age of 25, the Center sits on 22 acres in Toano. It serves a diverse special needs population from Richmond to Norfolk, the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck.
Participants number 800+ annually and range from preschoolers to seniors in their 90s with more than 150 distinct diagnoses. Included are veterans from the Wounded Warrior Project and other adults with post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, anxiety, depression, dementia, multiple sclerosis and stroke complications. Kids and teens with autism, cerebral palsy and attention deficit disorder also participate.
Under the guidance of certified therapeutic riding instructors, and with the help of a speech and language pathologist as needed, participants learn to ride and care for horses or complete activities designed with specific development, rehabilitative or personal growth goals in mind. In non-pandemic times, Dream Catchers also hosts corporate team-building events and school groups.
Horses are highly effective therapy animals, because they provide immediate feedback to a rider’s or handler’s actions. They can also mirror emotions, learning to trust people who guide them firmly but gently. As a result, participants can work on skills such as calming an anxiety response, coordination, communication and focus. They can also learn to identify and deal with complex emotions such as anger, fear and hurt. Interacting with a huge, powerful creature can boost confidence and self-esteem, as well.
“I would recommend Dream Catchers to anyone – adults and children alike – with any special needs,” says Dr. Dawson, who volunteers as a “sidewalker” during therapeutic riding sessions. He also participates in monthly Board meetings and fundraisers and promotes the organization to potential sponsors.
Dr. Dawson discovered Dream Catchers shortly after moving to Virginia in 2016, when he asked about a photograph at his veterinarian’s office. It showed a child on a horse led by two people. The veterinarian, Dr. Ashley Fidler, is a member of Dream Catchers’ Advisory Board and quickly set up a tour.
“I realized immediately that this was a very special place that I wanted to become a part of,” he relates. “I believe Dream Catchers chose me.”
At almost every session, Dr. Dawson gets to meet a different participant with unique special needs. “Whenever I feel stressed or need to be uplifted, I think of serving at Dream Catchers,” he says. “Serving others redirects our thoughts from ourselves to someone with far greater needs. Every time, I am reminded of how blessed I am to be a part of Dream Catchers.”
To learn more about Dream Catchers and equine-assisted activities and therapies, visit dreamcatchers.org or call (757) 566-1775.