By Sandra Zunino
When Winston Churchill said, “There is something about the outside of a horse…that is good for the inside of a man,” he was barely touching on the many benefits that result from human-horse relationships. Through Talbot Special Riders, Inc., (TSR) physically, mentally and emotionally challenged individuals reap therapeutic rewards through the healing powers of the horse.
Founded in 1981 by Kathy Stoddard, Jessie Browne, Vonnie Rust and Sandy King, TSR is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to providing therapeutic horseback riding. Therapeutic riding was developed in Germany in the late 1960s. Successfully practiced in Europe, Canada and the U.S., riding is one of the most beneficial forms of therapy for those suffering from muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, down syndrome, mental retardation, autism, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, deafness, stroke, etc.
Riders experience increased self-confidence and improvement in strength, balance, coordination, attention span, language and social skills. Riders also strengthen spine and pelvic muscles. The discipline needed to master riding also improves concentration and emotional control.
“We’re not giving pony rides,” says Sandy King, TSR Coordinator, “nor are we trying to turn out great equestrians.” The beneficial effects of therapeutic riding are cumulative, meaning consistent participation is needed to show improvement. Many of the riders have difficulty multi-tasking within their minds and bodies. Riding lessons help strengthen these abilities.
When their hard work pays off, the emotional rewards are exponential. “It’s a confidence builder,” says Sandy. “They are very proud of themselves.” Two riders from TSR have gone on to represent Maryland at the Special Olympics World Games.
Riders as young as 4-6 years old, depending on their size and disability, can start the program. With no maximum age limit, adults up to 60 have participated. Institutions such as Benedictine School will call Sandy to suggest a candidate. Once Sandy confirms the program is appropriate, extensive medical forms must be filled out. In fact, there is an amazing amount of paperwork involved for the entire program.
TSR is a certified program operating under the umbrella of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Inc. (NARHA). Instructors are also certified by NARHA. Due to the extensive certification process, every five years TSR is re-inspected to ensure they are meeting all necessary safety standards.
“All you have to do is look away for two seconds and something can happen,” explains Sandy. “We must be ever vigilant.” Fortunately, in 27 years, TSR has had only one accident resulting in a minor injury.
Riding sessions last 45 minutes and take place at Glendale Farm in Easton. Sessions run for 10 weeks in spring and fall to take advantage of mild weather. The riders are not active enough to withstand frigid temperatures or sweltering summer heat, explains Sandy. Such conditions can be hard on horses and volunteers as well.
Horses used for the program must be extremely tolerant for safety reasons. Additionally, each rider requires three volunteers: one to lead the horse and one on each side of the rider to offer physical support and reimburse the trainer’s instructions.
“We are totally dependant on the volunteers,” says Sandy. If there are not enough volunteers for a session, a child may not get to ride. This fall, youths from QAC Pony Express 4H utilized their equestrian experience to volunteer. It is helpful for some volunteers to have horse handling experience, but not necessary for all.
TSR is an agency of the United Fund of Talbot County and receives grants from Mid Shore Community Foundation, as well as individual donations to help fund the program.
Because of insurance premiums, use of the facility, leasing horses, and supplies such as boots, riding helmets and other safety equipment, operating costs are high. While instructors and therapists are paid, all other labor is strictly volunteer. All participating riders receive 50% scholarships. For more information, visit talbotspecialriders.com.