"Our ponies are bomb proof," boasts Elizabeth Coopersmith with the Loudoun
Therapeutic Riding Foundation. When you bring disabled children together with
horses, you need to trust your four-legged volunteers! Coopersmith also asks
a lot of her two-legged volunteers. "You've got to have a love of children
and be comfortable with horses!"
Therapeutic riding helps children and adults with a wide range of disabilities.
It can improve balance and muscle coordination for those with physical disabilities.
It even helps non-verbal riders develop speech!
"We've got one little girl who didn't talk," says Kids 'n Bits volunteer
Tonya Crow. "This year she squeals and makes sounds -- and before she didn't
do that at all."
Crow was a little nervous at first about working with children with disabilities.
"You lose your fear being around them, and become 100 percent comfortable
with it. They're just so appreciative that someone will take the time to spend
The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) has nearly
800 therapeutic riding centers in the United States and Canada. "I can't imagine
how many volunteers that is. It depends on how many riders are using each
program," says Pam Simons. She's the communications director for NARHA.
Coopersmith estimates that two or three volunteers are needed to lead the
horses and act as side walkers. "Without volunteers, this program wouldn't
"Most of our programs are run by volunteers," agrees Simons. "From the
executive directors, the maintenance of stables, to side walkers."
A year after his wife died, Dick Greiser needed something to fill the void.
Then came the answer -- a local therapeutic riding center was looking for
volunteers. Greiser called Therapeutic Riding of Tucson (TROT) and was invited
to a volunteer orientation meeting the next week.
"I went to that meeting and it sounded so good I signed up the next morning!"
That was several years ago. Greiser, now in his eighties, has no plans to
quit. "I feel like I'm doing something worthwhile and actually helping some
Grover McCurdy and his wife have spearheaded Saddle Pals for 10 years.
"We have a son who's handicapped, and a lot of people helped him," says McCurdy.
"This is what you call payback!"
McCurdy remembers one little boy who didn't want to ride. "I went and sat
in front of him and said, 'My name is Grover.'" When the boy's name was called
for his turn he curled up in McCurdy's arms and let him put him on the horse.
"I don't know how many times I've had to go somewhere to keep the kids from
seeing me cry," he says.
Sallie Murphy is a veteran of therapeutic riding. Her nephew, who suffers
from spina bifida, greatly benefited from the program when he was young. Murphy
enjoys sharing her love of horses with the riders and helping the riders accomplish
what would otherwise be impossible.
She takes the riders over several fields to the nearby beach -- places
normally off limits to those dependent on wheelchairs and crutches. "If you
saw the smiles on their faces from the minute they get here to the minute
they get back . . . this is something they look forward to all week."
How to Get Involved
Therapeutic riding programs are always looking for volunteers. Volunteers
must be 14 or older. In many cases certification is available for high school
students needing to complete community service requirements. "One volunteer
used it to help get a scholarship," adds Crow at Kids 'n Bits.
Most programs are accredited by the North American Riding for the Handicapped
Association. And most volunteers need to take a training session before working
with the horses or children.
A certain degree of fitness is required of volunteers. But the only equipment
you'll likely need is a pair of boots or leather tennis shoes and a big heart.
North American Riding for the Handicapped AssociationP.O. Box 33150Denver
Directory of NARHA centersFind a therapeutic riding center near you
The Loudoun Therapeutic Riding FoundationLearn more about this therapeutic riding center
EquestFind out more about therapeutic horsemanship at this therapeutic
STRIDES Therapeutic RidingLearn more about therapeutic riding from this nonprofit organization