They sit tall in the saddle, three feet off the ground and view the world from a different perspective – on the back of a horse. Those who live with disabilities draw upon normally untapped abilities by riding horses, caring for them, and competing on them. It’s not the average regimen; it is eleven hundred pounds of highly effective, equine therapy.
Rosewood Ranch, located north of Pawnee Rock, is a 210-acre full-working horse ranch that offers equestrian and therapeutic riding classes to those with developmental disabilities. The ranch serves 45 adults from Rosewood Services Inc. and offers free services to more than 40 children on a weekly basis. Those who advance as independent riders experience the thrill of competition as they interact with others at horse shows across the state throughout the summer.
“It’s every bit as fun as Special Olympics for them,” said ranch manager Eric Hammond, who is an instructor certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. “They all have something in common because they are all riders. They get to meet people beyond this community and from other states. They form lifetime friendships from their experiences.”
Eleven advanced horse riders currently compete in shows. The independent riders are divided into two groups and each group takes turns attending the shows, which are held two or three times a month around the state. At the shows, clients are judged in the categories of showmanship, trail, and horsemanship.
So far this season, Rosewood has attended shows in Wichita, Lyons and Hutchinson. Rosewood skipped a show at Kingman in late May for precautionary reasons when a horse virus spread across the country from a horse show in Utah.
While horse shows run through the summer, horse riding goes on year-round for the clients. Rosewood Ranch features an 80-by-130-foot indoor horse arena, where clients ride weekly for several hours, regardless of the outdoor elements. The advanced group rides on Thursday mornings.
“We all look forward to Thursdays,” said experienced rider Mary Minear. “Horse riding never gets old for us.”
Sometimes that poses an issue. There are more riders than the four horses used for the therapeutic program. (Rosewood uses eight horses for horse show competitions). All the riders share the same passion for being in the saddle.
“Those two don’t like to get off the horses when it’s time to switch riders,” said fellow independent rider Charles Bortz, as he pointed to Minear and their teammate Patricia Ledesma.
Minear and Ledesma didn’t deny the charge. They both smiled, and Minear reaffirmed, “We love to ride horses.”
Tough as it is to part with their horses, Minear and Ledesma do comply. Equine therapy generates powerful experiential metaphors to life, where riders gain general understanding of themselves and others. The girls ultimately learn they must share with their peers, so they can work as a team.
Rosewood Ranch began nine years ago with Hammond being the only instructor. Today there are three additional instructors and four staff members accompany clients daily when they travel to the ranch. Therapy goes on every weekday for riders at various levels from independent, to being led, to leading with side-walkers.
“It’s really awesome to see the clients come out here because it really makes a difference in their lives,” said Melinda Suppes, who has been a therapy coach since February, after moving back to the area. “They learn to adjust and utilize problem-solving techniques to work through things. They don’t just ride the horses, they care for them, too. They clean the stalls, groom the horses, take the saddles off, brush them, and lead them back to the stalls when they are done.”
At the end of horse-show season, approximately 50 cowboys and cowgirls prepare for the next phase: The Rosewood Rodeo, held at the indoor arena of the Great Bend Expo grounds. Each October, riders compete in rodeo events such as horsemanship, flags, keyhole races, barrel races, pole bending and trail competition.
“The rodeo is where most of our riders can show their skills in front of their family and friends,” explained Hammond. “That’s exciting for everybody involved. What’s really nice is that all the clients at the rodeo are cheering each other on. They become their own support group; it’s good to see such enthusiastic sportsmanship every year.”
While horse therapy adds a different dimension to client camaraderie, Hammond gives credit to the parents and guardians of those clients for already instilling proper values.
“A lot of the clients are natural nurturers and it shows in their relationships with other people and the horses in the riding program.” explained Hammond. “When Tammy (Hammond) started the agency, the whole concept was about maintaining those nurturing values in a rural setting. Our concept has always been about growing ourselves by nurturing plants and flowers, and caring for livestock. We didn’t imagine all of this 13 years ago, but the horse therapy program certainly fits our core concept.”