“There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse.” This quote by author R.S. Surtees perfectly captures that special bond between human and horse. Which is why when it comes to helping people with physical and emotional disabilities, horses are a natural fit. Twenty-eight years ago the Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy (HETRA) began with one horse and one student and has grown into a new facility with 20 horses, up to 140 students a week, and 200 volunteers, and they’re still in need of help to continue to grow to meet the needs of families.
Development Director and Instructor Jodi Teal has been with the organization for 17 years. Her nephew was a student, and she first volunteered as a side walker. Soon she became a certified instructor through PATH International, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, and then she became Development Director in 2010. She said the coordination it takes to run an operation such as this is a huge task that relies on hundreds of people each week.
HETRA runs year round with 12-week sessions and is available for ages as young as two years old through adulthood for a wide variety of physical and emotional disabilities. Students ride once a week for 30 minutes in one of three programs. Therapeutic riding teaches students how to control the horse using reining and other aids and are conducted in groups of two or three participants. Hippotherapy is one-on-one with a licensed therapist focused on improving balance, coordination, and fine motor skills. Carriage driving offers the reward of controlled driving from a carriage seat, often best for students who are unable to mount a horse for various reasons. Public riding lessons and summer camps are also offered to anyone in the community, including siblings and parents of students.
HETRA also offers riding services for Veterans, which can be especially therapeutic for those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “Horses require you to be patient and are great non-verbal communicators,” Jodi explained. “They respond to the individual on their back. And research shows that in a 45-minute ride, the body makes 3000-5000 posture adjustments, so it’s a great workout.”
The benefits of equine therapeutic riding are numerous. Physically, riders improve their core muscles, balance, and coordination. They also form strong relationships with their leaders and especially their horses. “The giggles and smiles we see on students is what I love most,” Jodi said. This is certainly the case with Ethan Falk, who has cerebral palsy, and has been a student for 10 years. His mother Kim said he loved riding from his first lesson and has had the same horse, Rainbow, for the last six years.
Because he has spastic limbs and a weak trunk, stretching over the barrel of a horse helps his legs and strengthens his core muscles. Although he can’t sit up independently, occasionally he is able to when on his horse. Ethan also learned his directions as a result of riding, which enabled him to get a power wheelchair. “The instructors are always encouraging him with speech, identifying colors and numbers around the arena, so there are many aspects of therapy happening at once,” Kim said.
The large barn and riding arena at the new facility offer ample space. “The barn can be smelly,” Jodi said, chuckling. “But it has sights and sounds you won’t find anywhere else, and it’s truly therapeutic for everyone, not just the students but for the instructors, therapists, and volunteers.” HETRA’s new facility, the Robert A. Falk Farm, named after Ethan’s grandfather, opened in 2014 after having outgrown its previous location, which was the home of Executive Director Edye Godden. HETRA also has a $3 million capital campaign underway to help with ongoing improvements and operational costs. One program they want to develop is the Tack Shack, which sells donated saddles, bridles, and halters. Profits would go toward the student scholarship fund, and HETRA hopes to eventually have the store staffed by adult students as part of its life skills program.
With growth expected to be at 180 students per week by the end of the year, Jodi said they need additional volunteers to be side walkers, barn leaders, or tacking horses for riders. Volunteering is open to ages 12 and up, and they give tours twice a month to learn about opportunities and have multiple levels of training. They are also always in need of additional horses, particularly those ready for a second career. And of course monetary donations are always welcome. April 29th HETRA will hold its 17th annual Blue Jeans and Dreams community fundraising event to help supplement on average $100 needed every time a student rides. “The best thing about our program is that the disability disappears when they’re riding,” Jodi said. “The wheelchair or cane is gone, and the person owns this sport and knows it’s all theirs.”