Thursday, August 19th, 2010
“I came to New York from the Netherlands in 1980. In New York, I received my master’s degree in teaching for the hearing impaired. I taught in Brooklyn, Baltimore, and Chicago before coming to Washington in 1989. At the time, we had our third child and I was a stay-at-home Mom. I wanted to stay active and be involved in the community, so I started volunteering at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center to help those with disabilities do therapeutic riding.
“I rode a little bit as a kid and was always fascinated by horses. I started volunteering one morning a week. As soon as I had more time, I would add another morning. When I could make it a full day, I would. Before I knew it, I was here four or five days a week. It just grabbed me.
“With my teaching background for those with special needs, I realized that there was much more that I could do than just volunteer. I embarked on my training in horsemanship and therapeutic riding to use horses as therapy for those with disabilities.When I was in the classroom, trying to help my deaf students gain their independence in the hearing world, I would have loved to have these. Now, I am the resource that I wish I could have had before.
“Therapeutic riding can have amazing effects and be hugely empowering for many people. Through ridings, people with disabilities learn how to control an animal that is 1,000 pounds or heavier. Despite its size, the animal will listen to you and will obey your commands as long as you are reassuring and take the lead. I have had students in wheelchairs who need help all day long to do simple things, but they can get on a 1,ooo pound animal and tell all 1,o00 pounds what to do. It is incredible.
“Riding is also helpful for autistic children. It helps them with their balance, proprioceptive skills, gross and fine motor coordination, and their language skills. The thing is that while we are riding, we don’t talk about these things. We are out here riding horses and having fun, but I work to incorporate their goals into our sessions. Most kids just see it as bonding with their horses and having a really good time.
“I encourage my riders to do academic work to learn about the vocabulary of horses. In some cases, kids will go back to school and encourage teachers to help them learn to read so they can read about their favorite horse. I also explain to them the importance of language and vocabulary. I tell the riders why they need to know ladigo, withers, hock, cinch, and all of those weird words. I need to communicate with the riders and these words are important to them knowing what to do. When these kids have jobs, they will realize that there are words associated with their work that they need to learn them also.
“Riders leave here able to do something that they thought was really scary or impossible to do. Through horses, they realize that there must be other things that they can conquer as well. You can lecture people on their ability to overcome, but unless they actually do it, it is hard for them to think it is possible. This job is very inspiring for me and also gives me so much respect for parents who have children with disabilities. They are so loving and have so much energy. I do it for an hour and they do it 24/7.”