It's All Thumbs Up

Equine recreational therapy helps those with disabilities

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Sam Feather is excited to ride Rose. He runs around the stables clapping, hugging and talking to everyone. When it is his time to ride, Feather walks up a ramp specially designed for a rider with disabilities to get on a horse, and, with the help of volunteers, gets in the saddle.

He motions thumbs-up to a group of riders and volunteers watching, and he is off around the ring.

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Sam Feather (left) delivers a thumbs up sign as he is successfully seated in the saddle during the first go around of horse therapy. Steve Ryan, a volunteer, smiles broadly at Feather's joyful attitude.

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Sam Feathers is helped by many assistants as he goes around the horse arena and learns to coordinate sitting on a horse while sharpening his manual dexterity.

Feather, like other participants at The Merry Go Round, a recreational therapeutic riding program hosted every weekend this summer in Star Valley, is learning to ride despite having mental or physical disabilities.

The program aims to help everyone with physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities enjoy the benefits of riding and bonding with a horse.

"There is just something about sitting on top of a horse," said volunteer Robin Beadle. "A horse moves like the human body, so it is almost like they're walking."

The benefits of working with horses include building self-esteem, confidence, muscle tone, patience and flexibility.

"The horses teach them patience more than anything," said co-founder Lynn Waters.

"It is therapy for them," Beadle said. "A lot don't have good leg strength or balance."

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Teeka Leone (left) and Lynn Waters go over the schedule for the morning's horse therapy sessions.

The program even has one paralyzed rider who rides with the help of volunteers.

"You watch their confidence go up a lot," Beadle said.

One participant exclaimed to a volunteer after dismounting, "I did it and I wasn't scared at all."

Participants are partnered up with a horse based on their physical characteristic, the size of the horse and their mental needs, Waters said. Once a match is made, they saddle up for a ride.

A volunteer stands on either side of the horse to keep the rider in the saddle safely and another volunteer leads the horse in an arena.

By the end of the sixth class, riders can hold the reins and trot with the horses.

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Steven Steward (left) watches carefully as Chris Johnson (center) nervously approaches the horse he is about to mount with help from Steve Ryan.

"They really do accomplish a large amount in the time," said co-founder Teeka Leone.

The program first launched in January 2003 in Mesa.

"It was an immediate success," Leone said. "We had to get a bigger home to develop the program."

Today the program has 10 horses, four of which were rescued from abuse or neglect. A mini horse is also used to pull a cart for persons not able to ride in a saddle.

The program is open to anyone interested in the therapeutic benefits of riding. In the summer, the program is held at a Community Provider of Enrichment Services (CPES) facility in Star Valley and in Desert Hills, in the winter.

Each two-hour session is broken into two parts. The first is in a classroom environment where Beadle, a sixth-grade teacher in Mesa, teaches balance, horse safety and riding techniques through arts and crafts projects.

The second part is in the arena, with Leone, a certified North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) instructor. Through games and exercises, participants learn to ride, saddle and groom a horse with the help of volunteer horse handlers and spotters.

The program is offered free of charge to participants.

It is funded through grants, fund-raisers, volunteers, a partnership with CPES and private donations. Additional volunteers are always needed, Waters said.

More information on the program is available at www.themerrygoround.org, (928) 476-2222 or at The Watering Hole in Strawberry, 120 W. Ralls Drive.

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