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by Karen Brittle
SINCE 1987, Special Equestrians has been providing therapeutic horseback riding and equine assisted activities to children and adults with disabilities in the Lee, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties of Southwest Florida. Located on a 14.5 acre facility in the Buckingham area of Ft. Myers, Special Equestrians serves more than 80 individuals each week. Services are provided by nationally-certified therapeutic horseback riding instructors, working with 12 specially selected and trained therapy horses and more than 130 program and facility volunteers each year.
According to Jan Fifer, Executive Director, Our riders range in age from 4 to 76 plus. Participants have diverse diagnoses, which may include autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis or head trauma. Fifer explains, Being on horseback has multi-faceted physical, cognitive and emotional benefits. Through therapeutic riding, our participants make progress on their therapeutic, learning and life goals. For example, for a person with mobility challenges, sitting astride a moving horse can help build strength and coordination, potentially helping to improve their walking gait.
Fifer says therapeutic riding can be especially helpful for children and adults who have communication and sensory integration challenges, such as those that may accompany autism or learning disabilities. She explains, Especially for children with special needs, life can start to feel like an endless series of evaluations, doctors offices and treatment interventions. With therapeutic riding, we can address many of the same goals as more traditional approaches, but the child just knows that he or she is having a great experience riding a horse. Its fun! Therapeutic riding helps to foster self-confidence and motivate positive behavior, in addition to providing physical and cognitive benefits.
For Diane, an adult rider at Special Equestrians who has dealt with significant balance and coordination problems her entire life, therapeutic horseback riding has been life-changing. According to Diane, Ive loved horses since I was a twelve year-old girl. But Id really only had the chance to do trail rides. Now, at Special Equestrians, Im learning to control my horse. Its improving my balance. Its also making me feel better and more confident.
At Dianes first lesson, she felt extremely anxious about even getting on a horse. However, therapy horse Fancys quiet demeanor and steady gait helped Diane overcome her insecurities. Now, Diane says getting to know Fancy and experiencing therapeutic riding has not only improved her balance, but has also improved her overall quality of life. Earlier in my life, I drove anywhere without thinking twice. After experiencing some recent health problems, I was afraid to drive more than 4 miles from my house. But, getting from my home in Charlotte County to the barn at Special Equestrians meant I had to drive 45 miles. Therapeutic horseback riding motivated me to drive again and that has made such a huge difference in my life.
In addition to therapeutic riding lessons, Special Equestrians shares the benefits of equine assisted activities with the broader community of Southwest Florida in a variety of ways. For one, more advanced and independent riders in the therapeutic riding program can join the Spirit Riders drill team. The drill team consists of 4-6 riders with disabilities performing a complex riding pattern, synchronized to music. Spirit Riders has performed at many events around the state of Florida, helping to spread the word about therapeutic horseback riding. The drill team demonstrates to the public the enormous potential and diverse talents of individuals with special needs.
In addition, through the organizations Special Partners program, therapy horses and a trained outreach team make visits to local agencies, schools and community groups. Among many other sites, therapy horses and their handlers have visited Goodwill Trailways Camp, Impact for Developmental Education, Buckingham Community Day and Camp United. On these visits, children and adults with special needs have had the opportunity to pet or groom a horse for the first time an interaction that can increase self-esteem and promote positive interactions with animals. Since 2012, the Special Partners program has positively impacted more than 500 community members in Fort Myers and the surrounding counties.
According to Jan Fifer, Special Equestrians is an organization that simply could not have become what it is today without community support from Fort Myers and the surrounding areas. The program began on borrowed horses and in borrowed facility space. In 2007, we purchased our current facility and Fort Myers became our programs permanent home. The facility features a 12-stall barn for the therapy horses, a hay and equipment barn, a riding arena, caretaker quarters and office space. With the support of many community partnerships and local volunteers, the facility has grown to include a covered riding arena and many other amenities that make the facility a safe, comfortable place for its participants, as well as an environment conducive to learning.
Fifer explains, As a volunteer-run self-administrative organization, Special Equestrians could not exist without volunteers. She says the organization is always seeking volunteers age 14 and up to help out directly with the program. In addition, volunteers are needed for support with horse care, facility maintenance and special events. Volunteering at Special Equestrians can provide the opportunity to gain new skills, get great exercise, spend time with horses and make a difference in the lives of individuals with disabilities.
For Bill Curtis, who has been volunteering with Special Equestrians for 28 years, the experience has meant a deep connection to both his lifes purpose and to his broader community. Curtis says, I volunteer because Ive always loved kids and especially wanted to help children with special needs. Volunteering here has been my chance to do what I really care about.
While Curtis initially got involved to help others, he has found a community at Special Equestrians that has improved his own life. According to Curtis, I had cancer. If I hadnt had this [Special Equestrians] community to come back to, I dont know where Id be. When I was sick, I not only got cards from the staff, volunteers, riders and their families, but phone calls, visits and emotional support. He continues, Coming here gives me a reason to get out of bed every morning. When you see the incredible effects that therapeutic riding has on people I dont know how you could NOT keep coming back to volunteer!
When asked Whats next? for Special Equestrians, Fifer laughs and says, The program is always evolving both to better meet the needs of our riders and to best utilize the talents and skills of our community members. She cites a recent example. For a long time, weve wanted to add a therapeutic carriage driving program. Carriage driving offers participants many of the same physical, cognitive and emotional benefits as therapeutic horseback riding, but in the carriage, we can accommodate larger individuals as well as people who may not be able to ride or not want to ride for some reason. Wed like to offer services for military veterans with disabilities and carriage driving would be a natural fit for that population.
Fifer says this program expansion is becoming a reality. First, the right horse came along when Lacey, our Haflinger mare, was donated to the program. Shes an experienced driving pony. Then, a new volunteer, Art Carlson, mentioned to our volunteer coordinator, Priscilla Kovalsky, that he could refurbish a donated carriage. This allowed Mike Freeman, another volunteer who is an experienced carriage driver, to begin working with Lacey in harness. Mike is now taking the steps towards becoming a certified therapeutic carriage driving instructor. It takes a tremendous, united effort to get new therapeutic programs off the ground and keep them running, but people come together to make it happen. The result makes an incredible difference in the lives of children and adults with disabilities and for their families.
For information about Special Equestrians, visit their website at www.specialequestrians.net or call 226-1221. Special Equestrians is located at 5121 Staley Rd. in Fort Myers.