Horse therapy program benefits children, their parents and volunteers

March 25, 2011 

In 1985 the Boling family of McCleary had an inspiration: they would start a horse therapy program to aid children with disabilities. Today the program is still running strong under the leadership of Becky Larsen of Brady, the rider coordinator, and Rachel Tuttle who coordinates the horses.

Every two weeks, the children and horses meet at the Grays Harbor County Fairgrounds at Elma and the program continues.

Hope from Horses is a program supported by donations and staffed by volunteers. The program has a sponsor, but Larsen worries about the future in these uncertain economic times. She hopes to have a fundraiser soon to raise a year’s worth of expenses to guarantee the future of the program.

Different 4-H horse clubs in the area volunteer for one or two months during time the program runs, October to April. Club members and volunteers bring their mounts and help the children ride for the evening. These 4-H members are learning to give back to their community.

The young people you see riding are from age 3 to 21. Children with an Individualized Educational Program in school are eligible to participate. Exceptions on the upper age limit can be made with advance notice and approval.

The children I saw in the program have problems ranging from developmental disabilities to autism, post-trauma issues and speech delays. One boy, who would barely enter the barn or wear his helmet a year ago, now happily puts on his helmet and mounts his horse for his ride time. His only problem is that he wants to go faster, while the walkers are insisting on proper horsemanship, not trotting.

The riders enter the barn, sign in, and quickly put on their protective gear. Their boots checked and their safety belts on, the children line up for the next horse. It is obvious the riders are happy.

More than fun, these children are gaining physical therapy from the muscle activity of riding, building the core muscles for more stability and balance. Posture improves as they develop strength they may not have had before. There is a physical therapist active in the program, although she has had to work during riding time lately.

Riding adds to the child’s self-confidence and pride. Some are better able to concentrate after being in the program. Lessons are learned in being around large animals and the use of safety equipment. The children learn to communicate with their horses and with other people. These benefits carry into their school and life experiences.

The children’s parents also gain from the program. Many have been isolated, caring for their children or even ostracized by their community when a child’s disability is not understood. Here parents get a time with others who have had the same experiences.

It is not much, but twice a month the parents get time to visit with their peers. It should be evident that when the parents’ needs are met, the parents can better care for their children.

When I visited there were six or seven horses and a dozen or so children. As each child went by the stands I saw facial expressions ranging from deep concentration and contentment to absolute joy. There was a constant parade of children at the mounted ring toss and other games, where the children learn to balance on the horse while doing an extra manual activity.

Each rider has at least two people with them, a side walker and a horse handler. Extra horses and side walkers are needed. Help with fundraising can also be used. This type of program is a benefit children and volunteers alike.

Virginia Towne, a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, retired from the University of Washington as a computer programmer. Towne, who has personal experience with disabilities, can be reached at townevi@gmail.com.

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