People with disabilities gain personal strength and emotional confidence while experiencing the thrill of horseback riding at the Equi*Star Therapeutic Riding Center on Fuller Road.
Equi*Star will need about 100 volunteers this summer for its 80 clients, according to Miriam Smith who founded the program in 1995. Each rider requires from one to three volunteers. Some are horse handlers some are side-walkers.
Children and adults with all types of disabilities benefit from the program. Participants may have physical, mental and emotional problems.
“Some you wouldn’t notice when you see the person, but have some disabilities that are not visible to the eye,” Smith said. “For a child in a wheelchair, it’s a huge boost to their self-esteem. Instead to sitting down and looking up, all of a sudden they’re looking down. The fact that they have some control, they can control where they’re going, physically, it’s a huge difference. They get so much stronger, more flexible, better balance, immediately you see a difference.”
Volunteers, who must be at least 14, come from many walks of life. Boy scouts, girl scouts, people from different churches, families, college kids and retirees volunteer from one to five hours a week. Retired nurses and school teachers volunteer. Some volunteers come via community service through school or the courts.
Experience is not necessary. The newcomers are trained.
“I started because we used to have horses. I like horses and I stayed because I like the kids,” said Eileen Sarratori, 23. The Newfane native began as a Gregg Lewis Foundation intern four years ago and now she’s one of five paid instructors.
Most clients, young and old, come to the program without any knowledge of horses.
“They are really brave in the beginning and they get a lot of confidence,” Sarratori said. “They’re really happy about having something to do. I think because the horses are so big and so powerful and then they get to ride it. They’re pretty happy about being able to do that.”
Rachel Bennett and Sarratori demonstrated the wheelchair ramp, putting Rachel’s son Hadyn, 5, on Slade, a handsome Missouri Fox Trotter, which was donated to Equi*Star by Calvin Dufour of Gasport. The medium-sized black horse wasn’t right for the long trail riding, but fits right in at the 36-acre ranch.
“I see a lot of smiles. I see a lot of happiness,” said Steve Bennett, Hadyn’s dad who does grounds-keeping at the ranch. “When they come in, you might see frustration on their faces, but when you see them get on a horse, you see them smile. You see them loosen up a little bit. You see them excited. It’s just so awesome to know they’re wanting to be here and want to come back.”
Miriam and Leo Smith only had one horse and four riders when they started the program on leased property 17 years ago. Now Equi*Star has 12 horses, which include some ponies and a mule.
“Equi” stands for horse and “Star” is for the riders — who are the stars, Miriam explained.
Up to 80 patrons participate in each six-week program in the summer. Many need three volunteers, some need just a volunteer to lead the horse. Sessions are very night, some mornings and all day Saturday.
Equi*Star has 45 volunteers. Newcomers are given a volunteer training course. They learn how to get horses ready, put saddles on them, clean them and brush them down. The volunteers also lean how to interact with people with disabilities.
The instructors are responsible for not only the riders and the horses, but also the volunteers to make sure the whole thing is safe. Equi*Star has an indoor and outdoor arena.
Schools, pediatricians, doctors, group homes and counseling services refer the clients.
“They keep coming, so it must work,” Smith said.
Those Interested in volunteering for the “Amazing Ride” can call the ranch at 778-8249 or coordinator Janice Chapman at 772-2156.