For 35 years, horses at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center continue to give riders a leg up on life. As the oldest and largest therapeutic riding programs in Colorado, the facility serves over 700 riders per year with the help of over 1,000 volunteers and a dedicated staff.
At a quick glance, you’d never know the intricacies of all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into each 1-hour riding class. The horses, volunteers, staff, parents, and riders all play a role in the success of the program.
Donatedhorses must undergo a rigorous selection process to even be considered for the program. Barn manager Lindsey Moloznik shares that only about 50 percent of horses offered are looked out for the second round of selection. Selection requires Moloznik to go on an on-site visit to run the prospective horse through tests and situations that he’d encounter in a class, such as props, mixed signals, and unbalanced riding. “Only about half the horses I go see will be selected to start a 90-day trial period at CTRC.” During the trial period, she and the other trainers work with the horse to get him ready for his job.
He’ll also be used in class to ensure that he likes his job. “Even though the job isn’t physically demanding, it can be stressful. We’re asking them to go against their natural fight-or-flight instinct by putting them in claustrophobic environments or with riders who sometimes exhibit disruptive behavior, and they have to be completely calm,” Moloznik explains. Once a horse has passed selection, Moloznik oversees his conditioning and continuing education, so that he can stay physical fit and well balanced, and expend extra energy that’ll ensure that he’s well behaved in class.
The Helping Hands
The team works hard to ensure that day-to-day tasks are completed and that CTRC continues in a positive direction, the program wouldn’t be possible without the work of volunteers. Volunteers contribute countless hours each year, primarily assisting in classes, but also with hauling hay, helping with general facility maintenance, and contributing to the annual year-end fundraiser event.
Frank Campbell is one such volunteer who’s been involved in some capacity for the past 16 years. “The riders, volunteers, and staff are like family,” Campbell shares. He explains that the transformation he’s seen in riders he’s worked with has been an educational experience. He says: “The kids teach you so much, and it’s really rewarding.” CTRC welcomes anyone with interest and passion because their volunteer-education protocol sets even non-horse people up for success.
Cari Lastick, CTRC’s volunteer coordinator explains that even before volunteers start, they undergo training to improve horse-handling skills and learn about specific handicaps. They then shadow classes. Volunteers commit to a 10-week session for consistency’s sake. “We’ve found that this best helps the riders and it ensures that the classes are always covered,” Lastick says. “It’s a lot of commitment, but our volunteer-retention rate is over 85-percent. People often tell us that being here is their happy place.”
For the Love of Learning
Interested riders undergo assessment with the program director and head instructor to determine specific needs and develop goals. They’re then placed in a small class where they’ll ride with the same companions for the entire 10-week cycle. Each class is capped at four participants so riders receive individualized attention.
Head instructor Naomi Heller explains the benefits of horseback riding as a form of therapy for physical or cognitive disability. “From a physical standpoint, the muscles around the pelvis and the pelvis itself move in the same way when a person rides as when he or she walks. So riding stimulates and creates neuro-pathways in the brain that can help a person learn to walk or become better at walking or running. It also improves core strength and balance, which are both important to everyday life,” Heller shares. “From a cognitive standpoint, horses provide natural consequences that aid learning far more than directions and commands. For example if you don’t pull back and sit to stop your horse he won’t stop. Similarly, if you don’t kick and cluck then your horse won’t move. Riders who typically have trouble following directions in day-to-day situations quickly learn to remember step-by-step instructions so they can ride.”
Heller explains that horses can improve a rider’s life in unconventional ways, too. Heller was told that one participant was struggling to remember to wash her face at night before she went to bed. After learning to groom her horse, so dirt and his sweat wouldn’t make him itchy, she soon started washing her face and taking better care of her hygiene. “And this wasn’t even one of goals. When her Mom told me about the change, I was excited,” Heller says.
Its All About the Riders
Patrice Klinkenberg, a parent of one of the students, shares the positive changes she’s seen in her son Wes’ balance and motors skills, as well as his ability to trust, compromise, and interact with animals. She says, “This program isn’t about the drills or exercises like it is when he leaves a therapy session. The riding is therapy in itself, so it’s about him and the horse and their mutual trust.”
Wendy Parker, another parent, shares that she’s seen her son Alex’s motivation and perspective improve. “He used to tell me that Monday was his worst day (because it was the start of the week), and now he tells me that it’s his best day,” she confides. “I’ve also seen changes in his social skills. He interacts with kids at school, but I find it important that he’s able to make connections with kids who are similar to him and have the same needs. The social aspect of the class is important for us.”
From riders with special needs and physical disabilities to able-bodied riders who are learning to cope with PTSD, the program serves those with a range of ability and need. And, horses don’t discriminate in whom they’re willing and able to help. With such a broad reach and positive effect, it’s no wonder why CTRC has thrived for so many years.
Interested parties may visit the site to donate, or sign up to become a volunteer. Visit: Get Involved at CTRC.