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Connecting with Horses

In this more-than-one-horse town, kids and adults take pleasure in riding on trails and jumping over fences. But a few local barns offer equine- therapy programs for kids and adults with special needs. Not only do these programs teach students how to ride and care for the animals, they also instill confidence and boost self-esteem. For those with disabilities, equine therapy creates a bond between horse and rider, and in those magical moments strength is forged.


After twenty-one years with Equi-Kids, another local equine therapy program, Barb Ford founded Untamed Spirit in 2010 in Pungo. “It started with one pony, six kids, and me,” said Barb who is certified in equine therapy and has a master’s degree in counseling. Untamed Spirit offers mental health therapy sessions along with riding sessions for children and adults.

Although Untamed Spirit works primarily with horses during these sessions, occasionally a potential rider is afraid of the large creatures. That’s when Untamed Spirit’s miniature horses, goats, and pigs lend a hand. Children in wheelchairs or other kids who may be fearful of larger horses, meet the miniature horses first so they are at eye level. Barb and her instructors strive to create a bond between the various animals and the child.

“We try to incorporate a holistic and more nature-based environment with everybody,” Barb explained. “We do a lot of stuff like deep-breathing and concentration so everybody who comes here is really comfortable. It’s a real safe space because everybody’s doing the same thing. Everybody deep breathes because it’s good for the horses. Once the kids and adults take deep breaths, you can even see the horses deep-breathe.”

Noises can be a big obstacle for some special needs children, and they need reassurance that the sounds the horses create like sneezing, neighing, and bumping on the stall doors are all part of the barn environment. If Barb knows riders may have reactions to sound, she invites them to come in the middle of the day or on a Sunday when the barn is less active.

Barb recommends a family tour the barn, riding area, and gardens before they sign a child up for lessons to be sure the child will benefit from the program. Kids with tactile issues (who don’t like to touch) are invited to pet the pigs, goat, and ponies, get used to the different textures, and to bond with these animals.

Barb expects excellence from her staff, volunteers, and riders. “I always expect more out of people,” she said. “I want to see [them] do the best that [they] can do here, and more, because it’s going to carry over in school and carry over in their homes.”

Untamed Spirit uses a skill-based protocol developed by TRAV, the Therapeutic Riding Association of Virginia, with three different levels. The kids master skills within each level and then move to the next. Brushing the horse, naming the parts of the horse, and learning how to care for a horse are as important as learning riding techniques, says Barb.

Fourteen-year-old Maddie Bunting, from Virginia Beach, started group lessons with Untamed Spirit a year ago and then moved on to private lessons. “By coming here, you connect more with nature, horses, and animals and it’s really fun to push your boundaries when you’re up there on a horse,” Maddie said. “It’s just a really nice learning zone for [working through] personal stuff.”

Born with cerebral palsy, Maddie never thought of her disability as a boundary. She began riding at the age of six and has always been a determined rider. Starting out, she had a leader and two side-walkers (people who spot her from each side of the horse) and now has just one side-walker as her muscles, strength, and confidence have increased enough to keep her in the saddle. In order to mount the horse, she uses a ramp and swings her leg over the saddle.

“Mentally, it’s awesome because you feel one with the horse, and that’s really nice to [be able to] connect more with animals,” explained Maddie. “Physically, it’s helping my leg muscles because I have to squeeze to get [the horse] to go.” Maddie feels a lot better about herself and has become an inspiration to other disabled kids and adults.

Barb and her team encourage a rider to bring samples of their favorite music to play throughout the arena, choreographing the rider’s movements to the music. This puts a beat into the air, and the horses really like it, she says.

She feels that the most beneficial part of equine therapy is the boost in confidence and self-esteem her riders experience. “There are so many people in this world [who] feel like nothing is ever going right. They just don’t feel good about themselves or they don’t know where they belong,” Barb said. “The biggest thing that we offer is a safe place where people can explore their confidence levels and learn that they can achieve something in this non-judgmental and safe zone.”

Barb recalls several occasions where kids suffering from depression with suicidal tendencies have told her how coming to the barn helped them look at life in a more positive and uplifting way. If the riders are independent or just need a little assistance, the staff is there to help.

Regardless of ability or disability, everyone who comes to Untamed Spirit does more than just ride. The kids all learn valuable lessons, giving them a sense of independence in their own lives. “This is something we’ve done for many years,” Barb said. “It’s educational for everybody and makes them horse people instead of just riders.”


Chesapeake resident Kim Monroe started the Special Equestrians program in 1988 at Triple R Ranch in Chesapeake. Today Special Equestrians is an inspiring riding program for children and adults with disabilities.

“It’s more of a pleasure program,” said Kim. “This program is just a little piece of what Triple R Ranch does.” Special Equestrians has two 8-week sessions a year, one in the fall and one in the spring. In summer, the riders also participate in Triple R’s “Showdeo,” a show put on by summer campers. 

“One of the most beneficial things a child [with special needs] learns from this program is to develop balance by sitting on, staying on, and controlling the horse,” Kim explained. “It’s boosting their confidence by [knowing] they are moving the horse. The students begin to feel more relaxed and self-assured knowing that they are doing something that not a lot of people can do; they can ride.”

As a general rule three volunteers are needed per rider, one to lead the horse, one is a ‘buddy’ who greets the student and assists with the safety belt and helmet. The buddy stays with the student through course of his or her one-hour lesson and returns the student back to the parent after the lesson. The third volunteer serves as another side-walker to ensure the student has someone on each side while riding.

Wheelchair-bound riders have a mounting ramp that inclines to meet the horses on a better level for the rider. This takes four volunteers as the fourth one assists the student in his or her transfer from chair to horse. The physical benefits for wheelchair-bound riders are numerous, says Kim. Horseback riding mimics walking, in certain ways, which in turn helps the disabled rider on an internal level. This gives the student the ability to feel better inside and out.

Riders with dexterity issues use adapted reins which have a loop to make it easier for them to grasp. The horses do not use bits just in case a rider is a little rough on the reins.

Melvina Queen, a Special Equestrian instructor, often plays games with the students, placing poles for them to walk the horses over and barrels to maneuver around. She also has them do reaching and stretching exercises, which help the riders with balance and core strength.

Kim shared story about a young man with autism who participates in Special Equestrians. Now 30, he began when he was 12, and after a few sessions, Kim and her team saw a drastic and positive difference in his demeanor and behavior. Another rider was petrified at first. His team of three introduced him to the horse and eventually helped him gain enough confidence to touch the horse. Before long the young boy learned to sit on then ride for a few minutes, an example of how you can face fear and overcome it.

“When the weather is nice, we combine the classes and take the students on trail rides,” Kim said. “During Easter time, we have an Easter egg hunt on horseback and on Halloween we have costume contests and the students will trick-or-treat on horseback.”

One current rider, Colin has been riding in the program for 20 years. His grandmother, Audrey, said Colin has become more independent and more in control since he began riding. “Another young man in the program will ask his mother, through the whole week, ‘What day is it, what day is it?’ and when she says it’s Thursday, he’ll say ‘Boots, Helmet, Ride!” Kim said.

Although Special Equestrians is at capacity for riders right now, the program always needs volunteers. “Volunteers benefit from this program just as much as the riders,” said Kim. “The bond between a volunteer and a rider is something that gets stronger each class and helps each person gain a lasting friendship and unforgettable memories.”

For more information:

Untamed Spirit - www.untamedspirit.org
Untamed Spirit always needs new volunteers. Training is ongoing so check for dates and times on their website. Volunteers are also needed for administrative tasks if your talent is outside the barn, including event organization, board development, and fundraising. Families interested in signing up for lessons can contact Untamed Spirit through their website, email them at info@untamedspirit.org, or call 757-288-5999.

Triple R Ranch - www.triplerranch.org
Training for new volunteers is Thursdays from 6-8 p.m. in Triple R’s Cafe area. If new people show up to volunteer, Triple R will do a mini-training session so new volunteers can participate. The next formal volunteer training begins September 13, 2018. For more information about volunteering, call Triple R at 757-421-4177. Special Equestrians’ next 8-week session begins September 20, 2018. Currently, Special Equestrians has sixteen riders, which is their maximum, and a waiting list. To apply for the Special Equestrians program, visit www.triplerranch.org and submit the Special Equestrian registration form.

Other organizations offering equine therapy in Tidewater are:
Equi-Kids Therapeutic Riding Program in Va. Beach - www.equikids.org
Dream Catchers at the Cori Sikich Riding Center in Williamsburg - www.dreamcatchers.org
Horses Helping Heroes Project in Smithfield (for first responders, veterans, members of the military and their families) - www.horseshelpingheroesproject.com

Lydia Schoepflin-Streibel is Tidewater Family’s business and social media specialist. She lives in Chesapeake with her husband and two daughters.

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