This month, The Blue Ridge Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship (BRCTH) located in Boyce began its fourth year offering therapeutic riding for disabled individuals. Currently, five students take advantage of the specialized programs taught by certified instructors. Make no mistake, these are real riding lessons.
Motivated students earn certificates awarded by the Therapeutic Riding Association of Virginia (TRAV) acknowledging their skills. The three-level rider certification program was co-authored by Marjorie Youngs, a past president of TRAV and the co-founder and executive director of the BRCTH. Youngs holds a Masters Degree in Special Education and is a NARHA Advanced Certified Instructor. She also loves horses and helping people achieve their potential.
One rider participating in the program is 13 year-old Tessa. She is a slender girl with cerebral palsy that affects her mobility and limits her to the use of only one arm. She has been aided throughout her life by physical and occupational therapists but these days her attention is most keenly given to Youngs and a gentle giant of a horse named Max. The 23 year-old horse specialized in dressage; the intricate and complex gaits associated with the show ring. Today the retired Max specializes in following the soft voice, hand and leg signals of a wisp of a girl who sits confidently in the saddle in her third session at the center. Last year Tessa earned her first certificate which covered grooming, tacking, safety and preliminary riding skills such as proper cues for steering the horse. Each session encompasses one lesson per week over an eight week period.
On a warm afternoon in May, she is attempting the second level certification skills Youngs noted Tessa’s progress, “What I’ve noticed from this session after she had the whole winter off – this last lesson she had was phenomenal. It’s like she hadn’t taken the winter off at all. Her body is learning things and she’s actually riding. She’s actually telling the horse to do this and the horse will do it. And that is hugely empowering!”
Most students have an adult leader who holds the horse’s lead as the student rides, but students also ride independently when they are able. Long-time volunteer Zita Winzer does duty as the leader for this lesson. In Tessa’s case, her father, Kenny also participates. Kenny described his role as â€˜side-walker’. “I keep an eye on her, make sure she’s doing okay.” Youngs is the instructor, observing Tessa’s posture and tailoring the lesson to Tessa’s stamina and therapeutic requirements. On this day, Tessa is focused on giving proper commands to steer Max in a serpentine course between cones on the ground. It requires a combination of leg cues, a firm touch on the reins and a turning of the body. Correctly exercising these commands not only teaches Tessa proper horsemanship, but improves her coordination, muscle tone and balance, as well as exercises her concentration and improves sequencing and planning abilities.
According to her father, Tessa has always loved horses. It was Tessa’s mother who found out about the therapeutic riding program on-line. “My wife is very involved with Tessa and every aspect of her care and this is a big part of it.” Tessa finishes her lesson by practicing the two-point stance typically used for galloping or jumping a horse. Today Max just allows a brisk walk. At lesson’s end, Kenny asked his daughter, “Did you like riding fast?” “Yes”, she replied simply, but her smile said much more.
He arrived for his lesson in boots and jeans and a broad grin. CJ is a young adult from Clarke participating in his first session at BRCTH. At 23, he’s already got some riding experience, having had lessons as a young teen. He’s eager to show Youngs his abilites, but today, she has him focus on the rudimentary tasks of grooming and putting on the saddle and bridle. His first lesson the week before was an orientation but this week he will actually get to ride. Youngs lesson plan for CJ takes into account his cognitive abilities and attention deficit issues. As with all her riding plans, it’s coordinated with all the student’s medical professionals, the parents, and her own student evaluation.
Stamina is no problem for CJ, he participates in several Special Olympics sports. He’s currently on the softball team and has taken home medals in speed skating, (done on roller-skates). Youngs and CJ’s mother, Carol are long-time acquaintances. “Margie presented at our special education meeting recently,” said Carol. A chance encounter at a grocery store between CJ, Carol and Youngs led to the mention of the riding program. CJ wasted no time in getting face-to-face with Youngs to express his interest. How badly did CJ want to participate? He’s paying for his own lessons from money he earns working at a shelter.
Out on the field, Youngs tests CJ’s focus through a game of Simon Says where she gauges his ability to follow her instructions. That done, CJ brushes up on his basic skills at commanding Max. He has Max walk over a tricky set of poles on the ground. He soothes Max with polite words of encouragement. Carol captures CJ’s accomplishments with her camera. Walking back to the barn after the lesson CJ evaluated his lesson, “It was good. I’m happy to finally get back on a horse after so many years.”
The non-profit center is supported entirely by donations, civic and foundation grants, fund raising and student tuition. Their website lists a number of current fund raising events such as a coupon partnership with Sheetz and raffles for trail riding and overnight stays at Marriott Ranch. Youngs and the staff are all volunteers. Youngs coordinates the instruction and administrative areas. Tara Whitman coordinates the volunteer staff that includes over two-dozen leaders and side-walkers. This year, BRCHT is scheduling a short summer session in addition to its spring and fall sessions. Persons interested in registering can contact Marjorie Youngs by phone at 540-837-1575 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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