By Betsy Natter
Author Toni Robinson once wrote, “Horses change lives. They give out young people confidence and self-esteem. They provide peace and tranquility to troubled souls, they give us hope.” Perhaps there is no place where that is truer than at Special Equestrians, where people with physical, mental and emotional disabilities find help, healing and transformation.
Special Equestrians, is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing assistance to individuals with a spectrum of needs by providing a variety of equine assisted therapies. Located in Warrington, PA the organization provided 4,300 therapeutic riding sessions last year to riders in both individual and group settings. They are a registered PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International Center meaning that the facility, staff, and programming all meet PATH certification standards. The staff includes occupational and physical therapists, as well as a certified Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association Instructor.
Equine-assisted therapies offer a holistic approach to helping riders improve their over-all wellbeing. Horseback riding itself provides a gentle, rhythmic movement that mimics a person’s natural walking gait. Riding a horse, requires a person to become aware of their own physical space in relationship to the animal and as a result they improve their overall strength, balance, posture, motor skills, flexibility and sensory communication.
Communication between horse and rider is also a key component in assisting individuals who struggle with confidence, self-esteem, or utilizing appropriate social skills. Horses are naturally empathetic and responsive to their riders, easily establishing a horse-rider bond which eventually leads riders to improve on their own peer interactions. Once individuals find success in learning to groom, lead and ride a 1,110 pound animal, they have greater confidence to transfer those skills to other areas in their life. In fact, several schools in Bucks County utilize the services of the Center finding that these therapies have helped their students connect positively with their peers and apply themselves more effectively to their schoolwork.
Special Equestrians serves riders from age 3 through 70 through a variety of programs designed to meet the needs of each individual. About 60% of the clients are diagnosed on the Autism spectrum and the Center has worked with over 60 different diagnosis.
The Silver Saddles program is for those over age 55 with age-related disabilities who want to improve their health and stamina. Riders work on improving their range of motion, joint health and muscle tone. Research has shown an added benefit to horseback riding in that it helps prevent memory loss and keeps the mind active and sharp while giving cues and controlling body movements.
Special Equestrians provides its services with the help of nearly 100 volunteers who serve in varied roles. Development Director Mary Jo May says, “Our volunteers are a critical part of everything we do. We are always encouraging people to learn about what we do here and sign up to help.” Volunteers do not need to have previous experience working with or riding horses. The Center holds clinics and provides training so that volunteers can provide safe and effective assistance. To learn more about volunteering and how to sign up, visit the website’s Volunteer page.
Of the over 370 riders who were given therapeutic services in 2016 about 30% attended on scholarship. Families are asked to pay for slightly less than half of the cost of a lesson, and assistance is provided for those who qualify. Financial support for the Center’s programs is essential in order to provide the bulk of the operating costs and to provide funds for scholarships. “We don’t ever want to turn anyone away,” says May.
There are several giving options for those wishing to donate to Special Equestrians. Support a rider to provide tuition assistance, buy hay for a day, contribute to a specific program or sponsor one of the 14 therapy horses at a one of several giving levels.
If you are interested in visiting the Special Equestrians facility, stop by their Holiday with the Herd Open House on Sun., Dec. 10 from 11 am to 1 pm. Get your photo taken with Santa and one of the horses for a $5 donation. Cookies, cocoa and holiday crafts will round out the event.
For more information on Special Equestrians and their many programs visit their website at www.specialequestrians.org.