Serving Special Needs Equestrians Takes More Than Just HEART
Driving on to the thirty acres of Green Acres Preserved farmland where Riding with HEART’s Pittstown, New Jersey facility is located, may feel like any other barn. A glimpse of a horse and rider having a lesson in the outdoor riding arena or horses happily munching in spacious grass paddocks, may seem less than ordinary. But then you notice the long wooden ramp adjacent to the arena; an empty wheelchair perched at the end. Along the perimeter of the arena, everyone is smiling; the horse is being lead by a volunteer, while two other volunteers walk on either side of the rider’s legs. The rider is laughing.
As a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) Member center, Riding with HEART offers adaptive riding lessons and equine assisted learning programs. Both are aimed at improving the abilities of individuals with physical, cognitive, and emotional disabilities. Students are evaluated by PATH certified instructors and paired with one of the ten therapy horses in the program. Adaptive riding lessons uses the multidimensional movement of the horse to build the rider’s muscle strength, balance and more. You may see riders piloting a horse through an obstacle course, or trail riding through the Sensory Garden. Lessons are tailored to the specific needs of each rider. Program participants have a wide range of challenges including, but not limited to, autism, ADD/ADHD, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, developmental delays, and depression.
Horses, such as Stanley, a former dressage horse who was donated to the program in 1999, have cultivated a following at Riding with HEART. In addition to his daily lessons, Stanley has taken riders to the Special Olympics multiple times and The Paralympics at USET Headquarters in Gladstone, NJ. Riding with HEART Program Director Chris Baxter says, “He’s the heart of the program, the class clown.” Standing at 16.2 hands, Stanley is one of the biggest horses in the program, which makes him equipped for almost any rider.
Mounted riding lessons, are not all that is offered at Riding With HEART, Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) Programs are geared towards at-risk, vulnerable and/or disadvantaged teens, who are challenged in a traditional classroom setting. “Equine Assisted Learning Programs benefit the at-risk student in a non-traditional educational setting,” says Baxter, also a PATH Certified Instructor, “where the students natural strengths are recognized, their special needs are addressed and their personal growth is priority.”
EAL Programs use journaling, interactive group discussion, and interactive horse activities, among others, to open up a relationship with a horse and being to form healthy relationships with humans. “The socialization skills are transferable”, says Baxter, “and our goal is to create the opening for this to occur.”
Riding with HEART thrives upon the help from its many volunteers, donations from local organizations, such as the Flemington Woman’s Club, and various grants. This year, Riding with HEART has received grants from the William T. Morris Foundation, The Astle-Alpaugh Family Foundation, and Merck’s New Jersey Neighbor of Choice Award. Each grant will go towards a different mission with in Riding with HEART, to help ensure the development of the riders and health and happiness of the ten therapy horses that live at the therapeutic facility year round.
“Riding with HEART must ensure the facility and equipment are well maintained. As well as maintenance of the therapy horses’ needs, such as feed and care.” says Baxter. Barn Manager and PATH Certified Instructor, Stephanie Bacon, is tasked with keeping the horses healthy, happy and prepared for their jobs at all times. This includes the winter months, when there are no programs running. Many donations collected in the fall go to purchasing hay and other essentials the therapy horses may need in the winter.
The Annual Farm to Stable Fundraising Feast, is the largest fundraiser Riding with HEART holds. The event, held this year on September 12, 2015, provides guests with artisanal cocktails, wine, and a multi-course tasting menu prepared by renowned chefs. Ian Knauer, of the Farm Cooking School in Stockton, NJ, headlines the list of celebrity chefs from Hunterdon County and the greater New York City area. The fundraiser is held in Riding with HEART’s spacious barn, which is decorated to resemble a fine dining restaurant for the evening. Students showcase what they have learned in lessons, as well as other riding demonstrations and activities, such as a silent auction. Guests are encouraged to meet the therapy horses, learn about the program and begin to unravel the magic of horses for themselves.
“Riding with HEART was founded on the belief that just because a person is differently-abled, doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy a full equestrian experience. “ according to Baxter, “We pride ourselves on being a very warm and welcoming place, where a person’s differences are accepted.”
Article written by Lauren Kamerer for Paws and Rewind