Forming a special bond: Riding center offers physical, emotional and cognitive benefits

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WILMINGTON — On a cold, sunny February morning, Dawn Brownlow placed the bridle in the mouth of Bubbles, a 12-year-old paint mare, cinched up her saddle and led the horse to Brookside Stable's indoor arena. There, Amber Thibodeau, executive director and instructor at Southern Vermont Therapeutic Riding Center (SVTRC) greeted them with a smile that warmed Brownlow enough that she didn't need to wear a jacket.

Brownlow, a Wilmington resident, is one of 22 active participants in the riding center's program, which runs in eight-week increments year-round. As the only member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) in southern Vermont, SVTRC is able to provide therapeutic riding lessons to adults and children as young as four years old who present with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities.

SVTRC began in 2010 with Lorna Young, a PATH Intl. advanced therapeutic riding instructor, providing therapeutic riding lessons to a few children and adults in the area. In 2016, when Young decided to work at a therapeutic riding center closer to her New Hampshire home, Thibodeau became the executive director. Thibodeau is a certified PATH Intl. registered instructor and the organization's Vermont state chair.

Today, Young's vision is still going strong as Thibodeau, along with part-time instructor Stephanie Sargent, many dedicated volunteers, and three attentive horses, join together to fulfill SVTRC's mission: "To enrich, educate and expand the lives of individuals with special needs through equine assisted activities and therapies."

The organization offers individual riders three different year-round programs - therapeutic riding, horsemanship and vocational education. An eight-week timeframe for each rider in a program is used in order to create markers that ensure participants are reaching the goals they set at the beginning of each session. After eight weeks have passed, Thibodeau and the rider establish new goals or they continue to work toward reaching their existing goal.

To accommodate riders needs and skill set, SVTRC has special equipment available which includes rainbow reins to help riders keep the reins even and a special therapeutic riding saddle that

offers more support. Depending upon a rider's abilities and needs, a side-walker and/or a leader may assist the rider during a lesson.

A key factor to the success of the program is the horses: Bubbles, a 12-year-old paint mare; Carrot, a 16-year-old Haflinger gelding; and Duke, a 19-year-old Morgan gelding. While each horse has their own personality, all horses have the capacity to feel a person's energy and to read their nonverbal communication. This enables horses to form a special bond with their riders.

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During Brownlow's 30-minute lesson, the bond between her and Bubbles was evident. Brownlow, with her graceful form and admirable posture, continuously talked to Bubbles and petted her on the neck. Bubbles responded to Brownlow's commands, body language and energy by either turning left or right, moving forward or backward, and walking or trotting around the arena.

"Our horses respond very specifically to each rider," Thibodeau said. "They are very gentle but they're not afraid to test high functioning or more skillful riders."

While the horses respect the riders, the riders love the horses. "Our riders think about those horses outside of the barn." Thibodeau said. "When I see them around town, they'll ask me how's Carrot or Bubbles or

Duke doing?"

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Research has shown numerous physical, emotional and cognitive benefits associated with therapeutic riding. Thibodeau said she has seen an increase in self-confidence, self-worth, language improvement, and muscle tone in her riders.

A member of a local school's special education support staff has given Thibodeau credit for teaching her charge the difference between their left and their right. During a lesson, Thibodeau uses directional language like, "we are going to go left" or "we are going to go right." The support staff member, who accompanies the student to their therapeutic riding lesson, has used the same language at school and the student is now able to respond accordingly.

For those involved with therapeutic riding, the benefits are clearly seen and felt. And they don't end once the lesson is over and the rider leaves the barn. While some benefits are measurable, like increased strength or improved balance, others are less easily quantified. There is pride when a rider fulfills a goal. There is enhanced self-confidence when they learn what their body can do and there is trust as they build an unbreakable bond with an accepting horse.

Meredith Kenyon, a SVTRC rider for almost seven years and a member of the board of directors for six, has also experienced the benefits of therapeutic riding.

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"During the day, I am reminded of what my body can't do," said Kenyon who has multiple sclerosis. "When I get on a horse, I'm reminded of what my body can do."

According to Kenyon, when she is riding Carrot, he is able to move her body in ways she cannot do on her own. This allows her to strengthen muscle groups she would not be able to strengthen otherwise. She and her neurologist have seen the benefits of therapeutic riding which include improved muscle tone, stamina, balance, and an increase in self-confidence.

As a board member, Kenyon said the biggest challenges facing the organization are fundraising and growing the program with their limited resources.

"We are lucky to have Amber's creative brain and great energy level," Kenyon said.

SVTRC charges $45 for a thirty-minute lesson, but the cost to the organization — which includes caring for Bubbles, Carrot and Duke, renting the space at Brookside Stables, and administrative expenses — is closer to $60. Participants are asked to provide a minimum of $45 and SVTRC subsidizes the rest through individual donations and local businesses.

"I am honored to be in Deerfield Valley and Windham County where people are so generous," Thibodeau said.

To sign up for a program, to make a donation or for more information regarding Southern Vermont Therapeutic Riding Center in Wilmington, visit sovtrc.org or call 802-221-4409.

Freelance writer Anne Archer contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Manchester.


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