The following piece appeared in the Daily Progress/News Virginian and was written by Shannon Kelly.
Tucked away on a 100-acre expanse in Staunton lies a place where lives are transformed as horses and humans come together.
Founded in 1989, Ride With Pride is a nonprofit organization that has served the community through therapeutic riding for 30 years. Individuals with physical, intellectual and emotional struggles can find healing and hope through horses.
Ride With Pride helps nearly 150 students annually, from children as young as four, to adults and veterans. A member of Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH International), and the Therapeutic Riding Association of Virginia (TRAV), certified instructors, dedicated volunteers and horses come together to help participants gain healing, strength and independence through horsemanship.
“We want to let people know that we’re here to help,” said Program Director Kelsey Lasher. “I think that almost anyone you meet on the street, in some way, has worked with, met, or they themselves are struggling with a diagnosis of some sort that could potentially be helped through our program.”
Ride With Pride serves individuals with a vast variety of special needs. Amputees, paraplegics, and individuals with muscular dystrophy and other physical challenges have benefited from the program. Other participants are dealing with PTSD or emotional struggles. Children in the foster system have frequently participated in the program, as well as children with autism or developmental delay diagnoses.
Some students are referred to the program through organizations such as People Places and social services, or by occupational therapy or physical therapy programs. Still others connect with the program through word of mouth, Lasher and vice president of the board, Pam Stoneburner, explained.
Eleven horses currently work with humans in the program. Each equine is leased to Ride With Pride by local horse owners. In sessions ranging from one to four students at a time, horses and individuals partner with each other.
Each lesson is tailored to a student’s individual needs, Lasher said, whether their needs are physical, emotional or intellectual. And the results are continually astounding.
“When [one child] first started the program, he was nonverbal,” Stoneburner said. “By the end of his session, he could say “Whoa” and “walk on.”
Lasher recalled another student who went from needing assistance walking and requiring significant assistance to sit up in the saddle, to trotting on a horse without aid.
“I loved watching his transformation. It’s been amazing,” Lasher said. “He came to us, and he needed assistance walking. He needed a lot of assistance from side walkers. Now he’s going off-lead at a trot.”
This student can now hold two-point (jumping) position without any assistance, thanks to the core strength developed through riding, Lasher added.
Riding is not the only component of therapeutic horsemanship. Ground work is just as beneficial as time in the saddle. Working with a 1,200-pound free spirit can provide significant confidence building.
One student struggling with emotional needs was fearful of almost everything when she first joined Ride With Pride, Lasher said. In just a few sessions, however, the student’s confidence was skyrocketing.
“She’s really comfortable and confident,” Lasher said. “So confident that she has gone off lead, and she’s taking control of her horse. She realizes that she has control not only of this horse that she’s on, but she’s got more control of her life, too.”
Horses mirror human emotions, for they are extremely sensitive to them. This intuition is a powerful component in allowing horses to be both friends and therapists. Thanks to this characteristic, additional services Ride With Pride can provide include trust building, developing social skills and anger management skills.
On Friday, Nov. 8, Ride With Pride is hosting its second annual fundraising gala. Live music, a silent and live auction, and dinner will be held at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel in Staunton. Tickets are $85 per person, and all proceeds raised will benefit the therapeutic riding program.
Some of the many auction items include a free stay at Stonewall Jackson, a personal tour of the Wildlife Center, a chandelier made of deer antlers, and service from Williams Brothers landscaping.
Stoneburner hopes that the gala will help continue to grow the program. Monetary donations and sponsors, in addition to volunteers, are what make Ride With Pride and its transformational work possible.
Volunteers, such as Fred Garcia, are the lifeblood of the organization, dedicating their time and talents to helping others.
“I like to see the smiles on the clients’ faces,” Garcia, who is in his second year of volunteering, said as he groomed a mare. “That’s why I keep coming out.”
Lasher estimates that the program has 50 to 75 volunteers year round, with an approximate total of 100 volunteers annually, but there is always need for more.
Anyone interested in volunteering for Ride With Pride may contact the volunteer coordinator at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information and tickets for the gala can be found at ridewithprideva.org.