When Vika Christian was 5, she and her mother were watching a horse show on television. The winner was introduced as “the greatest equestrian in the world,” prompting Vika to burst into tears. “But I’m the greatest equestrian!” declared the youngster, who had started therapeutic riding lessons to address physical and emotional challenges after her recent adoption from Mariupol, Ukraine.
A decade later, Vika’s proclamation has come true: PATH Intl. recently named her its Youth Equestrian of the Year. The international organization leads the advancement of professional equine-assisted services to support more than 53,000 special needs individuals, including nearly 6,000 veterans, through a variety of equine-assisted services.
The teen from Budd Lake, NJ, rides with Centenary University’s TRAC (Therapeutic Riding At Centenary) program at the University’s Equestrian Center in Washington Township, NJ. Centenary’s accredited adaptive riding program has provided children and adults with equestrian experiences that can result in physical, social-emotional, and cognitive benefits, while enhancing goals such as balance, strength, and sensory integration. Centenary is a higher education member of PATH Intl.
Karen Brittle, assistant professor of equine studies and director of TRAC, said, “Anyone who has ever asked how therapeutic riding benefits participants needs to watch Vika interact with horses and ride. Her joy, skill, and sense of accomplishment radiate. The connection, focus, discipline, goal-setting, and physical strength gained by working on riding skills have transferred to support broader life goals.”
Vika was born with septo-optic dysplasia, which has left her legally blind. She also copes daily with reactive attachment disorder, a common condition in children institutionalized at a young age that makes it difficult to trust others. Recalling her first day at the barn, Vika said, “I was very little and very scared of everything. I just came to America and didn’t know how to talk well and couldn’t see well. There were people I didn’t know, and the horses were big. When I get scared, I do things that people think are naughty, but they aren’t. I am just scared.
“My teacher, Octavia Brown, put me on a horse named Lucy. I was loud and yelled and pulled on the reins and wasn’t gentle at all. Lucy kept me safe, even though I wasn’t being nice to her. When I noticed this, I trusted her and she became my first best friend. I could talk to her and she listened to me. Now, I am proud to win this award from PATH Intl., while people in Ukraine win the war.”
Slowly, Vika learned to trust her TRAC instructors, opening the door for her to interact with other riders, attend camps, and compete at horse shows. Eventually, she started to make friends at the barn and at school. When things became overwhelming, Vika would turn to her first friend, Lucy, pouring out her heart to the horse, who offered nonjudgmental support.
Kayla Thau, a TRAC instructor and 2021 Centenary University graduate, noted how deeply Vika cares about the well-being of the horses, as well as her progress in the ring: “It has been inspiring to observe her growth as an equestrian and related increase in self-confidence. Every goal that Vika has not only influences her riding and horse skills, but also her life outside of the arena. It is an honor as an instructor to be able to help propel those goals into motion and watch the unbridled joy as she wins a blue ribbon in the show ring.”
Vika has set many ambitious goals for the future, including someday attending Centenary University to pursue a career working with horses. Vika’s mother, Nancy Christian, said her daughter still faces emotional and academic challenges, but has an extremely competitive nature and is laser-focused on success: “Riding has been key to Vika’s success in everything she’s done. She has taken this recognition from PATH Intl. very seriously; with this award comes the responsibility that she is now a role model for others. I’m just completely overwhelmed with how far she’s come.”
For Vika, the years of training, blue ribbons at horse shows, and now an international award have resulted in the recognition that success comes down to trusting both yourself and others. In her acceptance speech, she said, “I am proud to accept this award, but PATH Intl. has given me more than an award. It has taught me trust—how to trust my horse, people, and myself.”