Saddle Up at Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center
When arriving at the Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center (GNOTRC), I was greeted by many smiling faces, despite the South Louisiana heat being cranked way up on this particular evening. Bambi and Jade, two of the center’s therapy horses gently move about the arena seeming aware of the important work they are accomplishing with their riders.
Brian Marelo, age six, has been riding for about two years. Brian has spina bifida and his father, also Brian Marelo, says riding has helped his son tremendously. When he began therapy, he could not walk and his doctor expected that he would never walk. He now walks on his own and has also increased his core strength, which seems to be a common benefit for all riders.
GNOTRC has been providing equine therapy since October 1993. LSU graduate, Anita Hefler, founder of the center, has always had a love for horses, and after college she became the owner of her first horse, Raffles. She then attended the American Quarter Horse Association’s World Show in Oklahoma City. “The show began with riders from a local therapeutic riding center and I couldn’t put those faces out of my mind’s eye,” says Hefler. Upon returning home, she began volunteering with Happy Trails Therapeutic Horsemanship Center in Franklinton. For over a year, she faithfully showed up rain or shine to learn all she could about running a therapy center. “I didn’t want to start a program and then decide I couldn’t handle it and shut it down,” says Hefler. The next step was to contact PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International), a national organization that certifies instructors and accredits centers, as well as sets standards for therapeutic riding centers. She became an Advanced Certified Instructor and began offering classes under the Huey P. Long Bridge in Bridge City. The program began with only two horses and three riders. Today GNOTRC, now located in Laplace, has eight therapy horses and one donkey serving 30-35 riders from St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Jefferson, Orleans, Tangipahoa, St. Mary and Terrebonne Parishes.
Recognized by the American Occupational Therapy Association and American Physical Therapy Association, therapeutic riding benefits individuals with all types of disabilities. “The three dimensional movement of the horse is the most similar to the human walking gait. When the movement is transferred to the rider, the brain learns that this is a more efficient manner of movement,” explains Hefler. Therapeutic riding may benefit individuals with nearly any disability, including muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, visual impairments, down syndrome, cognitive disabilities, autism, learning disabilities, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, emotional disabilities, brain injuries, CVA and stroke.
The gentle, rhythmic moves of horseback riding can help those with impaired mobility to experience increased balance, muscle control and strength. Riders with learning disabilities may develop increased concentration, patience and discipline. The unique relationship formed with a horse can help improve personal relationships for those with psychological or emotional disability. All riders benefit from increased self esteem and confidence.
The Right Horse for the Job
All GNOTRC horses have been donated and are selected based on their conformation, demeanor and health. Therapy horses must be between the ages of eight and 15 years old and they must “like” their new jobs. “We try new candidates out for 90 days before accepting them in our program,” says Hefler. GNOTRC must invest time into training and preparing horses for their new task, working with riders who may be off balance, squeal, screech or yell, some riders may also be very active while riding. The horses are also trained to accept riders being mounted and dismounted with the assistance of a lift and they must be comfortable with sidewalkers and horse leaders.
“Our focus is to make our riders as independent as possible, and allow them to do as much on their own as they can,” says Hefler. Some riders are able to ride without assistance, but others require several volunteers each. Sidewalkers are responsible for the rider; they reinforce instruction and keep the rider safe. Horse leaders are there to do just that, lead the horse. Sessions are approximately 45 minutes, including mounting and dismounting. During the session, riders will circle barrels, go over poles, weave cones and ride various patterns to develop balance and coordination, as well as riding skills.
Occupational Therapist, Lorraine Jenkins, assists Hefler with evaluating children with severe disabilities. “The horse is a tool that the therapeutic riding instructor uses to reach specific physical and neuro muscular goals for that rider,” explains Jenkins. The rider’s brain and nervous system are communicating while riding. “The horse’s three dimensional walk gives the rider’s nervous system the most normal input that can be given to a dysfunctional nervous system,” says Jenkins, who adds that traditional occupational therapy in an office setting would take much longer to see the same results because the tools used there are not nearly as close to providing the brain with “normal” input.
Love of Riding
Jennifer Stierlen says her four-year-old daughter, Jenna, began riding when she was two years old. Jenna, who has spina bifida, uses riding to help strengthen her leg muscles. “She sits perfectly straight and tall on that horse, she loves it,” says Stierlen.
Mandy Vicknair, 34 years old, who also has spina bifida, began riding in 2010. For years, Vicknair was afraid of horses and had no desire to try equine therapy. That all changed one day when she was brave enough to decide to pet a friend’s horse and she never looked back from there. She says she instantly fell in love with horses and soon after began riding at GNOTRC. After getting on a horse for the first time, her immediate reaction was “All my life, people had to look down at me, and now I’m looking down at y’all!” exclaimed Vicknair. One day her dad was no longer able to lift her onto the horse due to an ailing back. She was devastated to no longer be able to ride. Her family ended up donating the lift that GNOTRC currently uses. They wanted her to be able to ride again. Vicknair credits riding with helping her posture and loosening her leg muscles, allowing her legs and hips more flexibility.
Samantha Rabito, Occupational Therapist, and a volunteer at GNOTRC says that the recreation that riding therapy provides is important to those with disabilities, as they are often limited to the activities in which they can participate. “This is something that is really accessible to them and can be done with their peers,” says Rabito. She explains that no physical skill is required because they work with each rider to help them learn what they need to know and they provide assistance, such as side walkers when necessary.
Cindy St. Pierre, from Laplace, has volunteered with GNOTRC for 11 years. St. Pierre was motivated to volunteer after she lost her daughter, who was disabled and never able to ride. She always wished for her daughter to be able to take part in riding therapy, but her health never allowed. St. Pierre says that her time spent at the riding center with the children is “soul reviving” and has helped her to deal with the loss of her daughter. She says she has seen many wonderful results for riders throughout the years.
On this evening, St. Pierre leads Jade around the arena as Kyle Hutson, age 16, from Kenner, gets settled in. Soon enough St. Pierre allows Hutson, who has autism and ADHD, to take charge of the horse on his own, under the watchful eyes of Hefler. Kyle’s mom, Shirley Hutson, looks on with pride as he maneuvers the horse according to Hefler’s commands. She says Kyle loves animals, especially horses, which is evident by his happy demeanor. Hutson reports that Kyle no longer attends traditional occupational therapy due to the fact that his therapist feels he is meeting all necessary goals during his riding sessions.
It Takes a Village
Many volunteers are needed at GNOTRC to keep things running smoothly. Volunteers help prepare the horses for classes and return them to pasture when done. “Volunteers can expect to walk about three miles when assisting with two classes. It’s great exercise and it surely doesn’t feel like you’ve walked three miles,” says Hefler. Volunteers are also needed for farm chores and fundraisers. If you would like to volunteer, please contact GNOTRC at email@example.com.
All Are Welcome
GNOTRC relies on donations for support. The nonprofit’s annual budget is $80,000. Their biggest costs are feed and hay, veterinary care and supplies, along with insurance costs. The center employs two part-time workers who feed and care for the horses. They receive some funding from United Way of St. Charles and St. John United Way. They have several fundraisers throughout the year; they receive no federal, state or local funding. Since 1993, riders’ fees have remained $25 per session. Those who cannot afford the fee are never turned away for their inability to pay.
The riding center is in need of a cover for their arena. Classes often have to be cancelled due to rain or wet conditions. Hefler says they are very “weather dependent”, but are working hard to raise the money this year for a cover. If you would like to donate, you may do so on their website, http://www.gnotrc.com/.