Uuuugh…horses. I have a daughter who enjoys occasional horse rides, but she has an aunt with horses (which is just fine with me). Yes, I can see and understand the appeal. Horses are beautiful, graceful, powerful and really nice to observe grazing in pastures from afar — as long as those are not my pastures and I am not paying for their feed/veterinary/tack/saddle/etc./etc./etc. bills. In my estimation, horses are sort of like the boats of the animal world — they are kind of fun as long as they are owned, cared for and maintained by someone else.
Despite numerous equine challenges, though, there really is something special about pairing young people with animals and in some cases horses are the perfect fit. And, when horses and young people are combined with some caring expertise (along with ample funding and many hours of hard work) some really amazing things can happen.
Such is the case with Riders Unlimited, Inc. in Oak Harbor where the therapeutic benefits of horses are harnessed for individuals at least four years old who have been diagnosed with a disability and referred by their physician to participate. Some of the disabilities that benefit from Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT) are Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, CVA/stroke, developmental disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, learning disabilities, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, seizure disorders, sensory integration, Spina Bifida, and traumatic brain injuries.
“A lot of what we do is using the physical movement of the horse to imitate the movement of a human being. We are able to increase or decrease muscle tone and increase range of motion through all of their joints through the movement of the horse,” said Rebekah Recker, Riders Unlimited CEO and instructor. “They are learning to direct a 1,000-pound animal. How amazing is that?”
The benefits of working with the horses allows Recker and the more than 40 Rider Unlimited volunteers to really impact the lives of the young people who participate.
“For our clients who spend most of their day in a wheelchair, this is the first time they actually get to look down at someone. The rest of the time they are craning their necks up. That is a huge self-esteem booster. It is therapy but they don’t know they are getting it,” Recker said. “We teach them to use both sides of their bodies. They have to twist their whole bodies and then we turn around and use the other side of their bodies. We try to loosen them and try to stretch muscles a certain way. We also work on life skills like speech and language and educational goals. Sometimes we use analogies like how cleaning a stall is like cleaning a bedroom.”
Riders Unlimited was created in 1996 and the 10-acre facility features a full indoor riding arena and stalls for 20 horses. Recker is the only full-time staff. The kindness of donors and sponsors is critical for Riders Unlimited.
“There is a huge need for sponsors to help cover the costs. For example, we have a sponsor who donates all of our hay.” Recker said. “We cannot bill insurance for our services.”
Riding horses makes for excellent therapy because it adds a strengthening element while also helping to motivate patients to undergo treatments. Horses exhibit social and responsive behaviors similar to humans, which makes it easy for clients to connect with them, Recker said.
Spending time working with horses also provides opportunities for Riders Unlimited clients to learn about trust, respect, honesty, and communication. Because horses use mostly non-vocal communication and are in-tune with human behavior, participants learn to better understand how non-verbal communication might be influencing others in their lives. In addition, horses require people to be aware of their surroundings at all times and that heightened awareness is important in order to reveal patterns of behavior and helps participants think in a new way, Recker said.
Mary Stricker’s son has been riding for 16 years since he was 11 and the benefits of his time spent at Riders Unlimited have been life changing.
“It is what he looks forward to all week. He gets home from work on his riding days and gets his boots and helmet ready and sits and watches the clock until it is time to leave. He doesn’t know how to tell time, but he knows when the hands are a certain way that it is time to ride. He doesn’t know the days of the week but he knows the day he will be riding. It is his hobby,” she said. “Before he had the horseback riding he would just come home and sit. Now he has toy horses and horse posters in his room. He just loves horses.”
Fair season is almost here and, more than most, the readers of this publication understand how valuable working with livestock can be for young people. There is incredible value in time spent working in the barn with animals — even when the dollars and cents don’t quite add up. For some of the visitors, Riders Unlimited offers a rare chance at finding a connection with animals in a truly meaningful way. And in the right setting, horses have the unique gift of bringing smiles to some young people who may not have all that much to smile about otherwise.
There are plenty of people who really love horses. I am not one of them. But their incredible value for these young people can even make a hard-hearted-horse-hater like myself rethink things a bit — an equine opine definitely worth some consideration.