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Therapeutic riding improves health, offers hope for many

BOONES MILL, VA – “And halt in 3-2-1,” the instructor said. “Now close your eyes and tell me one thing you hear.” One by one, the small group of riders did as they were told, before continuing on the “sensory trail” at Healing Strides of Virginia.

Eight-year-old Rachel Breedlove of Salem is one of those who takes part in the Healing Strides therapeutic riding program during the week in Boones Mill. Activities such as riding the sensory trail improve concentration and awareness, and also hone listening skills.

This 81-year-old wanted to celebrate his birthday riding at Healing Strides. He has two side-walkers on each side and a leader for safety. Some more experienced riders ride with only a leader or independently . Healing Strides photo

But as the staff and riders will tell you, the benefits of riding and interacting with horses go much further than improved listening, concentration and awareness. For many with disabilities and anxiety disorders, the benefits are nothing short of miraculous.

Rachel attended her first horse camp in July 2011. Her mother Nicki Breedlove said her daughter, who has autism, had never played pretend before that camp. Summer camps are specifically for children.

“We had tried all kinds of things to get her to play with dolls [and other toys], but nothing worked until that camp. We were so happy you would have thought she said her first word,” Breedlove laughed.

Staff member Nicki Breedlove of Salem leads Dave and his horse at the annual Hoe Down held in September. Breedlove's daughter, Rachel, is a rider who has autism. Healing Strides photo

Since that first camp Rachel has been attending weekly lessons at Healing Strides, and the symptoms of her autism have greatly improved. Breedlove said. Rachel now sleeps better, has improved social interaction and a longer attention span. She is also not quite so riddled with anxiety, which was so bad it led to vomiting in the past, her mother said.

“For the first few days after her lesson, she’s a lot more of what society considers ‘normal,’” her mother said. “If I could have her go two or three times a week I would.”

But Rachel isn’t the only one who has changed. Amazed by the changes she saw in her daughter and inspired by the positive staff, Breedlove began volunteering at Healing Strides in August 2011 and is now on staff there. She works three days a week as an aide during classes, and also helps care for the horses on weekends.

“It’s helped me too. I saw that other people have it just as hard or worse than me. It helped me get out of the ‘woe is me’ thinking,” Breedlove said.

To someone not familiar with therapeutic riding, improvements such as those the Breedlove family has seen are, of course, remarkable. But what’s even more remarkable is that results like Rachel and her mother’s are not isolated incidents.

Twelve-year-old Ben, who has intellectual disability from fetal alcohol syndrome, attended the same summer day camp as Rachel during the summer. He now has better concentration, listening skills and short-term memory, and is doing markedly better in school, according to his parents.

Another student with Cerebral Palsy has noticed quite an improvement in posture and flexibility. Many people of all ages and with vastly different disorders have experienced improved health through the programs offered at Healing Strides and other therapeutic riding stables.

Opened in 1991, Healing Strides works with adults and children who have all kinds of disabilities and conditions, including Cerebral Palsy, Autism, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The program strives to meet the individual needs of each of their 100 plus riders in the best way possible. This includes matching students with horses that have the best temperament, personality and physical features to meet their needs, as well as using the right saddle, reins and other equipment.

The staff of Healing Strides includes five instructors, three full-time and two part-time, who are all certified by the Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. They also have two barn staff, one of which is Nicki Breedlove, who care for the 18 horses. All those horses received extensive training before becoming approved for therapeutic riding.

Besides the staff and instructors, Healing Strides has a base of 150 volunteers. Instructor Maggie Moen, who is from the Salem area, has 24-year-old twins with Cerebral Palsy who were in the first group of Healing Strides riders when the program started 20 years ago.

Some of the volunteers work just once a year at the annual hoedown fundraiser in the fall, and others work three or more times per week. The volunteers help the staff and instructors care for the horses, and also serve as aides (leaders and side-walkers) during classes.

They are all trained in the proper way to lead horses with a rope, walk beside a horse while holding a rider’s ankle or thigh, and safely mount and dismount riders specific to their needs.

Healing Strides purchased its current property, 22 acres of land bordering Magadee Creek in Boones Mill, in 2001. Today the program operates nine months of the year with a covered outdoor arena, an uncovered outdoor ring, a tack building and a barn.

A non-profit organization, Healing Strides relies mainly on donations and grants to operate. In fall 2011, the organization broke ground on a building that will serve as a viewing/waiting area for parents as well as a headquarters of operation. When funding permits, the organization hopes to build an indoor arena, enabling it to help students like Rachel, Ben and so many others year-round.

“Everyone at Healing Strides is so positive [and] it’s amazing to see the way horses relate to children and adults,” said Breedlove. “It truly is a magical place.”

Editor’s note: Salem Times-Register contributing writer Danae Wensley is a participant in the Healing Strides program. She completed her internship at the Salem Times while earning a master’s degree in communications from Regent University.

– By Danae Wensley, Contributing Writer

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