Equine therapy program focuses on the disabled

dorchester banner/susan m. bautz Bella steps out with Lisa smiling happily knowing that two side walkers are alert for any problems and the leader handles Bella.

dorchester banner/susan m. bautz
Bella steps out with Lisa smiling happily knowing that two side walkers are alert for any problems and the leader handles Bella.

RIDGELY — Dogs, and occasionally even cats, have comforted the disabled for years. Whether physical, mental, or emotional disabilities may be alleviated with the affection of another type of animal. Horses!

Equines, including not only full size 1,000 lb. horses, but also “minis,” ponies, and donkeys now participate in physical therapy, building self confidence, and meeting the needs of the disabled. Dorchester and Caroline counties offer unique programs that do just that. The first of a two part series on equine therapy focuses on a group in Caroline county.

Just outside of Ridgely the Talbot Special Riders (TSR) has a home on acres of fields, new barns, and riding arenas. While no longer in Talbot County, the 35-year-old organization brings a new dimension to the lives of its clients. On a beautiful July day two long-time special riders mounted up for a 45 minute class. Sporting a big smile, special rider Lisa rode a large white mare named Bella who is a star of the TSR program and almost unflappable according to Executive Director Kim Hopkins. That makes her and the other program horses very valuable assets for Ms. Hopkins.

The other major assets are the volunteers without whom there would be no program. There is always room for a volunteer to lead the horses or walk next to them on one or both sides to help an insecure rider and give confidence to those who need it. The horses are special and the volunteers are special. Dorchester County resident Jack Lewis is one such volunteer. A retired policeman, he says “I like helping people. Ten years ago I saw a story in the paper about Special Riders, contacted them, and asked if I could help.” A rider since he was 12, Jack was an experienced, very welcome addition to the program.

“As a volunteer,” he said, “I love to see the progress. That’s what keeps me coming back. Of course you bond with the youngsters and adults, too.”

One volunteer, Sarah, is a “side walker” to support the riders as they need it. “Some riders need two, some only one. Some riders are very stable and secure in the saddle and don’t need much support.” Tara has volunteered for a year. “I’m not sure why I started,” she said, “but I was interested.” One of the few people who has no history with horses, she explained, “I’ve been in social work for a long time and I like being around the riders.”

Special rider Dominic is outgoing and always eager to share his experiences in a running documentary from the saddle. This special rider guarantees the atmosphere is always upbeat, fun, and challenging.

Kim starts a session with a tack check to ensure the saddle is in place, the girth is tight, and stirrups are the right length so adjustments can be made before mounting up. She uses English saddles (no horn and lighter weight) because she is an English instructor. “But, we’re always open if we have riders who want to ride Western. It’s called adaptive riding as opposed to therapeutic riding because that’s what we’re always doing. We’re adapting the riding lesson to the riders’ needs. Certain riders respond well to certain volunteers. I look at who is the best leader for the horse.”

The horses come from referrals, rescue centers, and retired lesson horses. “Our horses are almost abnormal because they are almost completely desensitized,” said Kim. Because they are usually older they are more expensive to keep. “But, the horses and volunteers are our biggest assets. We could not be us without them. Some of the horses get antsy, cranky, or fidgety. A lot of stress is involved for the horses but they have to stand still. You can’t put all riders on all horses.”

“Some riders are expressive; some are quiet; but all are proud of their accomplishments. It requires great faith on the riders’ parts to trust the walkers, horses, and instructor and tremendous pride in overcoming anxiety to keep improving their skills.”

When she was 4 years old Kim started riding and fell in love with it. She has two daughters, one of whom, Ashley, inherited her passion and now runs the farm. Kim said, “She has her training, lessons, and sales and also cares for the TSR horses.”

Ashley, with Larry her energetic Jack Russell in tow, oversees and boards the TSR horses. She is in charge of their diets, turnouts, time in stalls, training, supplements, and administering medications. She assumed responsibility for boarding and training 6 or 8 years ago but has ridden her whole life. One barn houses sale horses, training horses, and boarding horses. The other is for TSR horses. Ashley, Kim and one helper handle all 15 of them. She also teaches plus breaks, trains, and sells horses. And, a young woman of boundless energy like her mother, she also competes in hunter/jumper competitions.

Kim is certified to instruct by the Professional Assn. of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) and Ashley is close to finishing all the requirements for certification. PATH “promotes the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding and other equine-assisted activities and therapies for people with physical, emotional and learning disabilities.” When she teaches for TSR, Ashley must work with a certified instructor until she completes her schooling.

Kim explained, “We’ve had to grow since the organization moved here in 2016. It takes $40,000 a year to care for the horses plus my salary now. I do double, triple duty. I’m the director, the instructor, and also do marketing — everything that goes with trying to run a small nonprofit. You have to find the money. We need funding. Fundraising isn’t what it used to be so we are looking for grants. It’s a battle to get donors to see that we are extra special. Even though I think we are extremely extra special there are plenty of extra special organizations out there.”

The nonprofit now measures “outcomes” because grant funders want to see outcomes. The trend towards measurable outcomes is growing. “It’s very hard,” said Kim, “because you can have goals set and it may look like they’re not meeting their goals riding but it may just be because they had to switch horses. It’s hard to measure outcome when you’re dealing with horses. They have a mind of their own. For us, it’s safety first. We’re just starting so next year we may change the way we measure. Right now we measure: A goal is met; partially met, or not met. Each rider has a different goal. One person’s independent riding may be very different from another person’s independent riding.”
This work is not easy. Kim sometimes has 20 hour days. But for her, “it’s a passion, not a job.”

For more information visit: www.talbotspecialriders.com.

Editor’s Note: See part two next week. The second installment features Courageous Hearts Horsemanship at Windy Way Horses, LLC in north Dorchester County.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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