Working with a horse can be therapeutic in many ways from the calming effect of brushing a horse to the rhythmic gait that helps a rider develop balance and coordination. A therapeutic facility that offers opportunities to work with horses has not been available locally in Houston County until now. Touching Moments Animal Assisted Activities is excited to be extending their program to include a therapeutic riding center.

It has not been a quick and easy process to open this therapeutic riding center program. "This project has been in the works since the summer of 2012," explained Shelly Ellingson, Touching Moments Therapeutic Riding program coordinator. "We held an event/fundraiser in June 2012 at Windy Ridge Ranch to announce and explain our intentions of implementing the riding program. From that event, we gathered much community support and activities have been ongoing since."

A lot of planning has taken place to ensure a safe and quality program. The riding center is in the process of becoming a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International certified center. Certain policies and procedures must be followed in order to receive this certification. There is an application process and a review of documentation and safety-related activities. This includes having a PATH certified instructor or instructor-in-training on staff.

"Rider safety is foremost, so several training topics including fall prevention and emergency dismounting training is included in the volunteer orientation sessions," Ellingson said.

The therapeutic riding center is targeted to individuals with disabilities and special needs.  

"The program's purpose is to contribute positively through equine-assisted activities to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals with disabilities and special needs," explained Ellingson. "We are also working to organize a riding program servicing veterans with injuries or illness as a result of military service. The program will offer veterans an alternative rehabilitation program, which consists of therapy that focuses on the close bond between horse and rider. We will be addressing veterans who have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The title of the program is Horses for Heroes and PATH International has partnered with the Wounded Warriors Project providing equine assisted activities at qualifying centers for veterans. Our goal is to become one of these centers."

Participants in the program will, for the most part, learn riding skills. Horses move in a rhythmic motion that mimics the human movement of walking. Thus, while a rider is on the horse, the horse's stride and gait help the rider develop in the areas of strength, balance, coordination and flexibility.

"Learning horseback riding knowledge and skills as well as learning safe behaviors for riding and moving around a horse, builds confidence and self-esteem," explained Ellingson.

Part of the program will also include un-mounted lessons. "Interacting with the horse by grooming, such as brushing, has a relaxing and calming effect for the rider and the horse. Horses are good animals to work with because they mirror the emotions of the people around them so riders can learn that their behavior affects others," she added. "In order to work with the horse, they have to learn how to change their behavior. By teaching riders how to work with a horse, the instructor indirectly teaches the rider how to apply the same skills in their personal relationships."

The facility will run with the help of many trained volunteers. Ellingson has been in conversation with the Houston County Extension Office regarding 4-H member recruitment.

"We have received so much community support and have already compiled a volunteer pool interested in participating. For 4-H members with equine related projects and activities, this is a great opportunity to perform community service by volunteering."

The therapeutic riding center is located in rural Hokah at Windy Ridge Ranch. The facility plans to open in May with a pilot program to be implemented by mid-June. Exact timing will be dependent on the weather and when the barn can be built and the arena excavated. They will hold a groundbreaking ceremony and sometime after the facility is open they will have an open house for the public to see what their facility is all about.

Touching Moments Therapeutic Riding Program is an extension of Touching Moments Animal Assisted Activities Program, which is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization that is sponsored through the La Crescent Area Healthy Community Partnership. To learn more about Touching Moments, visit their website, www.touchmoments.org or contact Ellingson at (507) 894-2201 or sellingson@norcorp.com.