Cathy Lindberg holds her 24-year-old daughter’s riding helmet between them and traces the matte black brim with her forefinger.
“What makes this a princess helmet, Molly? Can you show us?”
Her daughter raises her finger to the two gold horse stickers catching light from the top of the helmet. A smile stretches across her face.
“That’s right,” Cathy says. “Because they’re magic.”
When Molly’s riding helmet is strapped on and she mounts her black-and-white horse, Oreo, she is a princess.
She takes the reins of her horse, flanked on each side by a volunteer side walker to ensure she stays secure in the saddle. A leader guides the horse through a series of maneuvers – stops, turns, trots. The team moves in sequence with other riders and walkers, preparing for one of the end-of-session horse shows.
Molly is developmentally delayed, which qualifies her to participate in the therapeutic riding sessions offered by Special Equestrians. Founded in 1986, the non–profit organization is recognized as a Premier Accredited Center through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International, and provides high quality therapeutic horseback riding and equine assisted activities to persons with physical, mental, developmental and emotional disabilities. The therapy is designed to increase independence and quality of life for its riders through a variety of methods. The facilities and equipment are carefully selected to provide a safe environment and to accommodate a wide range of disabilities. The therapeutic horses are specifically chosen for each participant. For example, Oreo was a perfect match for Molly because he has a broader back and smoother gait for more stability.
Horseback riding is an ideal therapy for people with special needs because it requires skills that can benefit the rider even when out of the saddle. Core muscles are strengthened, posture is improved, and, more importantly, confidence is built.
“It’s really inspiring to watch,” says Teresa McCombs, the certified instructor who has designed the program Molly’s group will perform during the upcoming horse show. She holds a stack of papers with color-coded diagrams showing the moves of each horse and rider in the program. It involves wide turns and pinwheels and waves to the judges, a pattern Teresa says she hopes the judges will identify.
“What we’re doing is a series of Xs and Os, with the horses in the arena,” she says. “Xs and Os, kisses and hugs, lots of love from Special E.”
Special Equestrians is a nonprofit organization that relies on the generosity of others to continue to offer its services to those in need. The organization is supported through corporate and personal donations as well as through special events, including the annual Boots and Black Tie Gala.
The staff at Special Equestrians is limited. Executive Director Kathi Claybrook and Assistant Director Madison Pozzo are the only full-time employees. The organization is built on the strength of its volunteers, which numbered more than 300 last year and provided a combined 9,000 hours of service. Volunteers are specially trained in classroom and hands-on work to serve as side walkers and horse handlers, provide administrative support, maintain the stable and grounds, and care and feed of the horses.
Volunteers are recruited from the general public or through school or community organizations. Many come to Special Equestrians through a love of horses that is strengthened through the rewards of watching individuals with special needs thrive in the program.
For example, the side walkers and horse handlers typically team up with the same rider each week, giving the volunteers the special opportunity to bond with the rider and celebrate their achievements.
“Our volunteers, when they’re working with the riders, really see a difference. They see the rider learning new skills. They see them smiling. Gaining more movement, more strength. It’s really amazing,” Kathi says. “I know, because I started as a volunteer.”
In 2004, Nancy Kane, Protective Life’s Senior Vice President of Acquisitions and Corporate Development, heard about Special Equestrians through a friend. A lifelong lover of horses, she was compelled to inquire about volunteering. “Horses are my passion. If I can weave helping others in with my love of horses, then that’s what I want to do,” she says. She began volunteering as a horse handler and has been hooked ever since.
Nancy’s husband was also driven to support the group and volunteered so much with stable maintenance that the organization eventually hired him as its facilities manager.
“I am completely passionate about the organization and have gotten so much more out of it than I’ve put in,” Nancy says. “The participants are so inspiring, their courage and the incredible amount of progress they have made. It’s that sense of accomplishment they get out of the program that’s such a joy to see.”
For Molly, horseback riding has given her more confidence as well as one thing she can call her own, her mother Cathy says. “She has an older sister who does sports and a younger sister who dances. But Molly can say horseback riding is my thing.”