If you walk into the horse arena at the Grays Harbor Fairgrounds during the first or third Monday of the month, you will observe a positive, relaxing atmosphere. Children are laughing and smiling, patiently waiting in line to ride a horse. Gentle, well-mannered horses are tethered or ground-tied on the sidelines, anticipating their turn to give a child a ride. Several horses are carefully walking around the arena, led by their owner or another leader, with a delighted child clinging to the saddle horn. Parents and caregivers are happily observing the scene before them, snapping pictures and praising their child’s efforts.
This is Hope From Horses — a therapeutic riding program for children and teens who struggle with learning disabilities, autism, physical impairments and other special needs. Rides take place twice a month at the Grays Harbor Fairgrounds at 6:30 p.m., and anywhere from 12 to 20 kids participate, along with over a dozen horses, numerous leaders and volunteers.
Bringing Hope and Healing
The Hope from Horses program has been around for so long, none of the current leaders are really sure how it started. “People just seem to pick it up and keep it going,” Julie Truax, one of the program’s coordinators, says.
J Rosenbach, a long-time volunteer, says the program has been in existence since at least the 1980s. “We operate under the auspice of the Grays Harbor 4-H and are technically a 4-H program,” he explains. Children who sign up to participate in the riding program must also be enrolled in 4-H. Truax says that the group does not do a lot of fundraising, although they have received a few grants. A recent grant from the Grays Harbor Community Foundation helped the program purchase a mounting ramp, which enables riders to safely mount and dismount the horses. New helmets, which must be worn by each rider, were also purchased. Otherwise, Truax says, “People just seem to donate enough money to keep the program going every year.”
Making a Difference
Having been in operation for more than 30 years, Hope From Horses has touched the lives of numerous children in Grays Harbor.
“I think the kids really look forward to it,” Truax says. “Riding seems to make the kids happy and helps them learn confidence and skills.” She adds that one child was “completely non-verbal, but wore a huge smile on her face every time she rode.”
The program has also helped children who struggle with balance and coordination. “I wish more parents would take advantage of the program,” Rosenbach says, noting that in some areas, therapeutic horseback riding can cost upwards of $100 per hour. Hope From Horses offers this service free of charge. Truax says that the program is a great way to “get these special kids out and about and acclimated to different situations.”
While Hope From Horses is primarily designed for children with special needs, not all the kids in attendance are severely disabled. Some have mild to moderate learning disabilities or are on an IEP at school. Even foster children have attended. Truax points out that interacting and riding with the horses is a very positive experience for foster children, helping them gain confidence and learn to trust again.
Horses that Touch Lives
While all the horses involved in the program have good manners, Rosenbach’s horses are exceptionally well trained. Rosenbach consistently brings his mare, Plain Jayne (Janie), and a gelding named Kid. “I feel blessed to live in an area where I can have horses,” Rosenbach says, noting that he feels an obligation to share this gift with others.
Rosenbach originally bought the horses for his two daughters 15 years ago. As the girls grew up, went off to college and moved away, Rosenbach says, “They kind of became dad’s horses.” A master horseman, Rosenbach is a firm believer in natural horse training and has worked extensively with both Janie and Kid. His philosophy is simple: “Horses are smart and rise to your level of expectation. They know what you expect and what you will let them get away with.”
Janie, a 16-year-old black paint with a single blaze of white, is described by Rosenbach as calm and eager-to-please. Kid, an Arab/appaloosa/Saddlebred mix, is a sturdily built gelding that carries himself with pride. Both horses know some tricks. Kid likes showing off how he can kneel and Janie never fails to display her curtsy. Their docile natures and skilled manners make them ideal riding companions for special needs kids.
If parents are interested in enrolling their child in Hope From Horses, they can contact the 4-H extension office at 360-482-2934 and ask for Tracie. Additional information is available on the program’s website.
Families can participate in one ride to see how they like the program before signing up. A schedule is available on the Hope From Horses Facebook page. Teenagers and community members who wish to volunteer should also contact the 4-H extension office. Volunteers are needed to help lead horses and also walk alongside riders. If you own a gentle, well-mannered horse and would like to enlist his/her services at Hope From Horses, talk to the 4-H extension office on how to get your horse involved.