It's the first Saturday morning of the new year. Temperatures have dipped into single digits overnight, and the snow crackles under the tires of a sporadic flow of cars that slow as they enter the driveway north of Elizabeth. Following a short pause, the drivers ease forward, finding a gap between the SUVs, pickups, and sedans already lined up in front of the SaddleUp! Foundation's powder blue metal riding arena.
Inside, it is cold but not freezing. The scent of hay and horse mixes with the smell of brewing coffee. Ten future SaddleUp volunteers sit or stand, sipping from Styrofoam cups under the lone radiant heater running the length of the hall's ceiling as a few stragglers wander in. The coffee urn has sprung a small leak, and drops of coffee seep from the faucet.
Jamie Anthony, therapeutic riding instructor and SaddleUp's volunteer coordinator, moves in and stops the leak with a quick twist of the faucet shank. In addition to working with students at SaddleUp, her job is to make things work, providing the proper mix for the center and the dozens of people who offer their time to the center's outpatient and therapeutic horseback riding programs.
SaddleUp specializes in providing equine therapy for people with special needs. Also referred to as hippotherapy, the technique uses horses in physical, occupational, and speech therapy for patients with physical or mental impairments. While the facility does offer lessons to able-bodied individuals who want to improve horsemanship, the majority of the SaddleUp's students have brain injuries, multiple sclerosis or autism.
“Autism is big for us because it is such a wide diagnosis for so many conditions,” Anthony said. ”A lot of disabilities fall into that.”
Equine therapy focuses on three areas: physical, mental, and emotional. In addition to strengthening core muscles required for riding, the horse's natural rhythms combined with a horse's warmer body temperature helps relax muscles, improve balance, and provide the riders the sensation of walking normally.
Teamwork is also an important part of the volunteer's and rider's experience. Each rider works with a certified therapeutic riding instructor (CTRI) and, ideally, two volunteers. Each team member performs specific duties such as leading and side walking to brace a rider. These activities cater to the student in ways they may not have experienced in the normal course of their lives. The therapists feel this element of teamwork and the courage to mount an animal the size of a horse helps boost self-esteem.
In addition to the physical and mental benefits, riders form emotional attachments to the therapists, volunteers and especially the horses. This comes, in part, from the specific nature of the animals selected for the program.
Each horse is chosen for its ability to adapt to the unique riding situations they will encounter. Trainers blow bubbles near the animals and condition them to nonstandard riding such as unbalanced riders, students riding backwards, or kneeling. Horses lacking this temperament are not leased by the program.
Depending on the strength and disposition of the rider, activities in a one-hour session can include the volunteer leader guiding the horse on a straight path. Stronger and more confidant students do “crazy walks” where the horse is guided through a series of zigzags. Still more advanced riders trot with their team alongside.
During any one-hour session, there can be up to five teams working in the arena simultaneously. So volunteers are trained to lead the animals at least two horse lengths away from other teams to allow the side walkers and therapists enough room to pass comfortably.
With as many as eight sessions in a single workday, the demand for volunteers is high, but the ideal volunteer is not necessarily the one with the most experience with horses. As with most organizations that rely on volunteers, showing up is a big asset. Anthony suggests that new volunteers start slow, taking a single two-hour shift rather than working the entire day.
Volunteers undergo background checks and must be physically able to do strenuous work. Anthony likes to set clear expectations for her volunteers, but says it is rare that someone contacts her who isn't excited about the work, even though some of the work may involve mucking out stalls.
The morning of volunteer training begins with a video followed by a short tour. Then it is time for work. The group is broken into three small groups to simulate a day in the life of a volunteer. Before the end of the morning's three-and-a-half-hour session, each volunteer will have completed most of the tasks that encompass a typical volunteer day: saddling a horse with either Western or English tack; side walking and leading practice; and setting up a surcingle, a strap with handles that is commonly used for the therapy.
“We get so many great volunteers. They each bring something unique,” Anthony says. “We've had people who volunteered and have stayed on for years, and others who show up a couple of times and we never see them again. That's the world of volunteers.”