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I volunteer on weekends at a therapeutic horseback riding center in northern Illinois.
Their clients are children, teenagers, and some adults who have different challenges in their lives. These range from physical disabilities, developmental disorders, emotional problems, abuse histories, to illness or injury.
At the center, they take riding lessons with accommodations for their special needs. Some of the students need to work on social skills, and the lesson setting gives them a chance to have conversations with the volunteer guiding their horse. Some of them work on fine motor coordination, practicing holding the reins and sitting upright in the saddle. Some of them are learning for the first time how to trust other people.
Not all the students can walk. Not all are verbal. Not all come from stable home lives. But, when they walk into the barn and see their horse, ready for them to ride, they get excited and happy and get a chance to feel competent and independent.
The horses (and some other animals) live in a natural environment, living outside in their own herd without interference in how they move and socialize. The center has its own hay fields, riding tracks, and stables that are clean, pretty, and use as many natural methods for maintaining the land and the health of their animals as possible.
This particular center also has cats, bunnies, a goat, a few sheep, and a pair of mini horses each just a couple feet tall. Students who aren’t ready to ride horses can socialize with the animals and learn about different kinds of touch, how to take care of other living things, and respect. Most of these animals themselves came to the center from neglectful and/or abusive homes.
The center relies on many volunteers to keep the cost as low as possible for their services, but they also have full-time and part-time employees. These are volunteer coordinators, occupational therapists, riding instructors, a speech/language pathologist, and other specialists as needed by the students. Some of the people who work there have been with the program more than twenty years. Some were students of the program themselves.
Overall, it’s a very cool place to be. It’s relaxing, exciting, safe, friendly, and full of good people, great kids, and a whole menagerie of gentle, fuzzy animals.