“The kids learn to groom horses and we relate it back to personal hygiene and self-care and it improves their self-confidence an amazing amount,” said Kelly Hall, coordinator of equine assisted activities. “We set goals for all the kids. Instructors must write lesson plans based on the applications.”
Instructors are students in the Equine Studies program from Ohio University Southern. After completing course work, instructors must graduate from the Therapeutic Riding Instructors' course. Some instructors work simultaneously on degrees in education and psychology while pursuing their instructor certificates. They plan both classroom lessons, such as identifying markings on different horse breeds, as well as riding lessons.
The children come to the park from different southeastern Ohio agencies, including Shawnee Mental Health, Integrated Services for Youth and Ironton Family Services. Students must have a mental, emotional, physical or behavioral challenge with which instructors can help.
“Not everyone can ride,” said Hall. “A student may have a physical condition that riding can worsen or a behavioral condition that could cause harm to us or the horses.”
Volunteers also are an important part of the therapeutic programs. The Ohio Horse Park recruits volunteers through advertisements in local papers and on radio stations. Volunteers must make a 10-week commitment when they sign on for training. Every two months, the Ohio Horse Park trains seven to 12 people to work with children ranging in age from 5 to 17.
The volunteers do not need horse experience. A good volunteer is “someone who likes to work with kids and teens, who understands our participants and their challenges and doesn't mind the dust and dirt, and are physically able to do the job,” Hall said.
“When they go through the first time, they learn to lead the horse, halter the horse, how to groom, how to tack and how to be an effective side walker, which means walking beside the horse while the child is mounted to provide security and safety for the child,” said David Nichols, an intern from Ohio University Southern Campus and the current volunteer coordinator. “Volunteers go through refresher training every two weeks and special training as needed. There is also an evaluation period to determine competency in handling horses.”
“Children are always inside the indoor arena - it's a safety factor. It's easier to control the noise level or outside interference and the horses don't get distracted as easily,” said Nichols.
“Everything is planned and we're very safety conscious. Progress is constantly monitored. Every single lesson is followed up with notes used to set goals for the following week. We let the agencies have those to read if they want.”
Volunteering is “harder than people think,” said Hall. “But, I've been told over and over that it is more rewarding than they thought it would be.”
“This is truly not a pony ride,” Hall said.