Story and Photos by Callie Miller
On the outskirts of Bowling Green, in a large but unassuming white barn with a dark green roof, the smell of manure is thick, but the sign promises “new beginnings.”
In a brightly lit alley in the back of the barn, Jacob Watson, 13, tacks his horse up for a riding lesson. A volunteer helps Jacob brush the horse and put a saddle on, but she struggles to keep his attention for longer than a few seconds at a time. Though Jacob is frequently distracted and he has a couple of energetic outbursts, his aging horse stands amiably in her cross ties that hook to her halter on the concrete floor.
Jacob and the student beside him, Caden, finish tacking up by putting bridles on their horses. They lead their horses from the back to a mounting block in a bigger, dimmer section of the barn with a dirt floor. Several volunteers help Jacob and Caden mount their horses.
Two “side-walkers” walk on each side of the horses as a third volunteer leads each horse through a red gate into a pen at one end of the barn. An instructor stands in the center of the ring to guide the 45-minute lesson.
Sometimes lessons are held in a bigger outdoor arena, but on a cold or rainy day, the barn is big enough to have two separate lessons going at the same time on opposite ends of the barn.
Jacob’s mother Dawn leans with her arms crossed on the railing of the pen from the outside to watch her son’s lesson. She encourages him when he passes her at the end of the arena where she stands.
Jacob has been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, absence seizures, and Sydenham’s chorea, a movement disorder, Dawn says. He has been taking lessons at New Beginnings for three or four years.
“It gives him confidence and control, and it just makes him happy,” Dawn says. “He loves it, and he looks forward to it.”
During one of the exercises in the lesson, Jacob and Caden each hold a shallow tray with an orange ball and try to balance while a volunteer leads the horse. He laughs and chats with his side-walkers, but he never drops the ball.
Dawn voices her admiration in her son’s success at the task. She doesn’t think she could do it.
New Beginnings Therapeutic Riding Center is in its 20th year of operation. From meager beginnings with three horses and three students, it has now served more than 900 riders. The barn now uses 10 horses for lessons and currently has 22 students.
New Beginnings gives horseback riding lessons to individuals with a variety of behavioral, emotional, mental, and physical disabilities.
Most of the horses are retired—whether it’s from racing or rodeos or something else.
Many of the students at New Beginnings work on their core strength during lessons because a lot of them have weak abdominal muscles as a result of their conditions.
Hippotherapy is the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment
Children with autism in an experimental group in hippotherapy demonstrated more improvements in areas such as sensory integration, directed attention, and social motivation than children in a control group in a study conducted in 2009.
Ernie Phelps, 68, a volunteer, stops to watch some of the lesson in passing and is greeted by Dawn. He is an air force veteran and one of New Beginning’s oldest and longest working volunteers.
He does a little bit of everything, between helping with lessons, hauling hay, fixing fences, feeding horses, and emptying the manure spreader. “Whatever they need,” he says.
Ernie fiddles with his ancient flip phone for a minute before getting to his tiny background screen featuring Bert, his pet mule. Dawn laughs.
Jacob loves Ernie’s mule and always asks about him, she says.
Everyone seems to know everyone in this little community. Volunteers chat with each other in the down time and greet students as they pass.
Michele Vise, the executive director, has been with New Beginnings since 2009. She said New Beginnings relies on donations from the community and grants from the state.
Several volunteers come up to Michele periodically with questions. At one point, Michele walks through a hallway in the barn and is pleasantly surprised by about 15 volunteers who present her with a large, hot pink poster board card. They sing “Happy Birthday” and hand Michele a cupcake with a candle. After she blows it out, Michele shares most of the cupcake with the kids who gave it to her before ushering them back to work with a smile.
Sophia Nasato, 19, a sophomore at Western Kentucky University, does not have horses of her own but has loved them her whole life. She’s volunteered three days a week at New Beginnings for a year and a half, helping to feed and exercise the horses to keep them in shape.
A volunteer holds out a silver bucket to Sophia, and she grabs a slip of paper from the inside. It has her instructions for a mock lesson she will prepare. Sophia is an instructor-in-training, a two year process that when she completes it, she will get to plan and execute her own lessons.
New riders are initially tested in a riding evaluation and are then paired with a horse and an instructor. Sophia practices giving lessons to able-bodied riders and also shadows other instructors as part of her training. She has had the opportunity to bond with not only the horses, but their riders as well.
“I actually started loving it,” she says. “It’s not just therapeutic to the students. It’s also therapeutic for me.”
Some students, such as Caden are nonverbal and use sign language to communicate. As a result, Sophia has learned some sign language so she can help those riders with their individual needs.
“I can learn new things while I teach the students new things,” she says.
In a 2004 study, children and their parents recorded noticeably higher increased speech and language abilities after hippotherapy as compared to traditional speech therapy.
Chloe Carter, 15, a junior volunteer, also wants to be an instructor.
“I’ve been crazy about horses my whole life, and I love working with people with disabilities,” she says. “Everything that I love is out here.”
The horses have to be desensitized to everything around them when they first come to New Beginnings because horses are prone to spooking. Sometimes horses that are donated to New Beginnings just aren’t the right fit for riders with disabilities. That’s how Chloe got a horse of her own, Sammy, because he didn’t make the cut.
Chloe admits she gets frustrated with students sometimes, but in the end, “its super rewarding,” she says.
Chloe’s mother, Sandy, works at New Beginnings as the volunteer coordinator. She said when Chloe told her about and brought her to New Beginnings it changed her life. Sandy makes sure that the 150 volunteers are well trained to handle any kind of catastrophe or accident.
“They can handle any situation,” she says. “We’re prepared.”
Two mothers wait in the office for their daughters to finish their lessons. Elizabeth, 21, has cerebral palsy, and her orthopedist encouraged her mother, Kim, to check out New Beginnings. She has been taking lessons there ever since. Her mom thinks the therapy has succeeded in loosening her body and strengthening her physically. Mentally, she has become more self-confident and is willing to try new things, Kim says.
A 1998 study in developmental medicine and child neurology followed five children with cerebral palsy and found that every child showed a significant increase in motor function. Increased stride length and decreased energy expenditure when walking were observed.
Elizabeth takes lessons with her best friend Camille Spradlin, who has spina bifdia. Camille’s mother says the lessons
help her balance a lot better than she would have without them.
“We wouldn’t have been here 17 years if we didn’t love it,” Kim says.
Each student has a different ability level, and some get to show in 4-H horse shows. New Beginnings also puts on it own themed shows every few months so students can perform what they have learned in front of their families.
As dusk falls and the barn grows darker, volunteers are finishing up their last chores and getting ready to go home. They bustle about with feed buckets and put saddles back in the tack room. The last two boys are finishing up their lesson for the night.
Jacob, now dismounted from his horse, spots Ernie under a gray hat, white hair tufting out the sides.
Ernie snaps his phone shut, shoves it in a pocket and looks up.
“How’s your mule?” Jacob shouts to Ernie and sprints away without waiting for an answer.