The impact that our hoofed friends can provide is sometimes unexpected, immeasurable and life altering.
The Exceptional Riders program has helped physically, mentally and emotionally challenged riders ages 4 and up at the Walloon Equestrian Center since 1983. The classes help them improve their balance and improve other individual skills by providing free lessons on how to ride a horse while playing games.
“It’s a big deal if you are part of that percentage that might be too impaired to participate in a sport, or control your fingers, or need extra assistance,” said Barbara Lane, executive director and president of Exceptional Riders.
Few centers still provide free courses because running these programs is costly.
“We run solely on donations and everyone is a volunteer,” said Lane. “We also go out into the community to fund-raise and spend more time going and getting more donations.”
Susan Lyons owns the Walloon Equestrian Center and provides the space for the Exceptional Riders program to meet every Tuesday for eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring. Per student and horse it takes three volunteers: one on either side of the student and one in the front of the horse. Typically there are five to six students per class.
“So it takes a lot of people to do this,” Lane said. “I don’t know, God must want us to have the program because it seems to be going forward all this time.”
The goal for Lane is to pick six students for each eight-week session who will “grow at the same rate.”
“We use the horse as a fun thing to do for the kids and the outcome happens to be therapeutic. We are also giving that extra curricular time for the students,” Lane said.
For each student the progress and outcome could be different.
“I’ve had students where people would say, ‘they’ll never be able to do it’ but then two sessions in, there they are doing it,” Lane said.
Other successes that Lane hadn’t anticipated was hearing from parents how the students’ siblings would give them more respect thanks to seeing what the student is able to do during the program.
“A lot of the siblings have never rode a horse and now, the students know how to do something their siblings don’t,” Lane said.
One of the students in particular Lane saw first hand the impact that can be made, was from during the time she still taught classes in Midland, Mich. The student was 17 years old and had never spoken a word. One of Lane’s instructions during classes is to “walk on.” During one of the sessions, the student said his first words: “walk on.”
“I had tears running down my eyes. So how much do the kids get out of this? I don’t know,” Lane said. “Ever since then I’ve believed every kid could succeed and this is the item that pushes them.”
Lane encourages anyone interested in volunteering or donating to the Exceptional Riders program to contact them at (231) 838-3362.