The Equestrian Ride for MS: Raising Awareness in First Nations Communities

The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Reserve, located west of Brandon, Manitoba, is home to the Dakota Nation Unity Riders – a group that dedicates their time to raising awareness for causes that impact their community. In 2019, following the diagnosis of a member of their community, the Dakota Nation Unity Riders turned their focus to raising awareness of multiple sclerosis (MS) by hosting the first annual Equestrian Ride for MS. They held their second event on October 3, 2020.

We spoke with Helena Mazawasicuna, the organizer of this event, to find out why raising awareness for MS means so much to the community.

“When my daughter Shaelyn was diagnosed with MS in 2018, it was all so new to us. I didn’t understand what caused the disease or what would happen to her. We didn’t know what was going to happen to her, so for our community, raising awareness became about educating ourselves at the same time,” says Helena.

“Shaelyn is an animal lover – she’s in school right now, training to become a vet technician. After she was diagnosed with MS, she asked if we would ride for her to support the cause. In our culture, the horse is one of our holy animals, and we believe that they bring emotional healing. We pray for people through our horses, and our horses carry the burden of our prayers. In our language, we refer to horses as ‘ShunkaWakan’ – which means Holy Dog.”

Shaelyn lives full-time with her father and brother in Saugerties, New York. The siblings usually head to the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Reserve in early spring to spend the summer with their mother and family on the reserve. Their travel plans this past March were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The hardest part is that I can’t be with her all the time,” says Helena. “As a mother, I struggle with that. I haven’t seen my daughter in over a year, which feels horrible. The pandemic hit two weeks after I booked their flights home and given the risks associated with COVID, we didn’t want to take that chance. For now, we stay in touch over the phone and by FaceTime. In fact, we actually FaceTimed Shaelyn while on our awareness ride. Well, my niece did. I can’t multitask like that,” jokes Helena.

“The ride itself was about nine kilometres – we didn’t want to make it too long as we wanted to make sure that everyone who wanted to participate, could. We had 14 horses and about 30 people who made the trek this year. Thankfully, the weather held out for us, which wasn’t the case the first year.”

For Helena, the annual Equestrian Ride for MS is also an opportunity to raise awareness about the disease in First Nations communities.

“I know that there are other people impacted by MS in our First Nations communities, but nobody really knows what MS is, which is why we continue to do this ride. MS is something that will be with our family forever – the more awareness the disease has, the more research will be done, which will ultimately lead to more help and support for people with MS.”

Like Shaelyn, Helena, and the rest of the Dakota Nation Unity Riders, you can make a difference by doing something you are passionate about. Achieving a world free of multiple sclerosis takes more than one person, and there isn’t just one way to accomplish it. Working together, every action taken brings us closer to this future. Whether you choose to ride horses, run a marathon, host a virtual trivia night, play video games – however you choose to challenge MS, know that #WeChallengeMS together.  Join the movement at wechallengems.ca

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