LANCASTER, Pa. – Triumphs are often small, so small that they are not easily detected. In this case, it was a disabled woman going up a slight incline.
A few weeks ago, that was a distant goal. Today was an achievement. Something to send a smile to everyone’s face.
The hours at Greystone Manor Therapeutic Riding Center are filled with these types of victories. They are treasures for staff and students. Proof that 45 minutes on horseback each week can change a person’s path.
Some of the runners who come to the nonprofit facility overcome physical challenges. Others struggle with autism, intellectual needs or emotional trauma. Whether obstacles are clear or hidden below the surface, an equine support system awaits.
“We all have things in our lives that are not perfect,” said Stephanie Fleck, program director. “It’s a safe place where they can work on their goals. The horse is certainly not going to judge them. The horse does not care about his economic situation or what he has done or has not done in his life. Or what happened to them in the past. It’s a clean slate.
For the woman up the hill, who declined to be identified for this story, time spent with her horse, Peppy, is liberating. She sits straighter. She moves faster. She sees the world from a different perspective.
Deb Jeffrey, one of the instructors, raised a disabled son. Jeffrey appreciates the progress of each lesson better than anyone. She knows the value of therapy and can see it with this particular student.
“She absolutely loved the lessons,” Jeffrey said. “We decided, ‘You are valid. You can’t do everything like everyone else does. You have your mind and your voice. She tells her boss where she wants the horse to go.
Find the right horse
There are 12 horses in Greystone’s stable, which can house up to 20. Their names are written on the outside of their stalls. We can see Wiz or Violet or Peppy in passing.
Fleck said horses are suitable for this work because riding them mimics the three-dimensional work that could be done in a physiotherapy gym. Sideways or forward and backward movement. Engage these muscles to make them stronger.
“We work with all of our students to set individual goals and objectives based on their unique needs,” said Fleck. “Some people come here just because they want the hobbies, fun and pleasure of being around horses and developing a relationship with them. Other students have more specific goals.
Some horses are donated or bought. Others are rented and returned to their retired owner. All are chosen with care. They must be in good physical shape and interested in the job.
Fleck said if a horse struggles with chores or gets too old, usually in their late teens, another home is found. Preferably a place where the horse can perform other tasks. If a home cannot be found, the horse lives his days in Greystone.
“Personality is absolutely essential, of course,” said Fleck. “For us it is important that our horses are healthy and happy. We don’t want our horses to be cranky about doing the job we want them to do. Some of our horses are characters. They are more expressive. Some are more reserved. Just like the people. Different students connect with different types of horses.
Once a rider finds the right horse, the two usually stay connected. It is the same instructor, the same horse and the same assistants for each lesson. Most riders come once a week and the course cycles are in six week increments with a break in between.
Fleck said the mornings were quieter and the afternoons more lively. Students have the option of riding outdoors in good weather or under an enclosure on colder, rainy days.
Carolyn Turner rides Bailey. It doesn’t take long to realize that she adores Bailey.
“I love being around horses,” said Turner, who has been coming here for four years. “I love to ride. It’s relaxing and it’s fun. I like to show myself in horse shows.
Turner’s small victory is independence. Going for a walk in Bailey or riding on a leash is a big hit. Bailey can be difficult. During this lesson, Turner was able to get his horse to stop walking towards the gate and move in the right direction. It was a breakthrough.
Regi Theodore-Wisc rides Nando. She came here three years ago looking for a job. His autism made it difficult for him to keep a job, and the 30-minute drive from York was too long. During this visit, Theodore-Wisc fell in love with Greystone and she started riding here six months ago.
“I find it hard to feel connected with people in a certain way,” Theodore-Wisc said. “I am very attached to horses. Emotionally, psychologically, this connection is really important to me. It really helps me to function.
More than two years passed between when Theodore-Wisc applied to become a barn worker and when she started school. She said she couldn’t afford it until she received a medical disability allowance.
Theodore-Wisc’s courts are quiet and under the enclosure. She’s stepped forward where she can ride off a leash and her face shines when she takes those precious steps. Spending time with people brings barriers and a feeling of loneliness. Time with Nando is different.
“There is an immediate connection,” Theodore-Wisc said. “There is a deep connection. I feel that for this moment, I count for someone.
A good and healthy feeling
Greystone has two full-time staff: Fleck and Executive Director Jen Rummel who writes grants that help provide funds. Other income comes from the cost of courses and donations. Much of the work is done by part-time workers and volunteers.
Two of those volunteers, Logan Harr and Cookie Sandoe, were serving as the sidewalks for a lesson this morning. They accompanied the rider every step of the way to ensure that she remained stable on the bare carpet.
Harr has been coming here for 13 years. He discovered the program thanks to Centraide and was intrigued. He has a disabled cousin and has always enjoyed being around horses.
“My reward is talking to runners when I can,” said Harr. “I like to get feedback from them. Ask how their day was. It is a really good and healthy feeling.
The tasks of the volunteers range from cleaning the manure, sweeping the driveway and the hearth to the exit of the horses if necessary.
Sandoe always wanted to volunteer, but couldn’t find the time until her retirement. Now she comes to Greystone twice a week for classes with the same two students.
“I was one of those little girls who always wanted a horse,” Sandoe said. “I had the opportunity to ride when I was younger. So when I had the opportunity to be around horses, that was a big part of it for me. I love children and I love to help.
Greystone students range from 4 years old to 70 years old. They discover the establishment through referrals from doctors, word of mouth and the media.
Horses can provide a wide range of treatments, sometimes even without riding. A student who had difficulty taking care of himself used horse grooming to learn the importance of bathing. Another rode his horse along a bus route so he could learn the stops and know where to get off to work.
Jeffrey, who has ongoing training for able-bodied people, saw the differences with therapeutic riding. Progress is generally slower. Small steps are big business.
“The little wins,” Jeffrey said. “It was one of the changes coming here. You could work on the same thing over and over again until they finally get it.
When it clicks, when the horse and the rider go up that slight slope, it’s a fulfilling moment.
Theodore-Wisc said the experience can take her from a state of non-functioning to a feeling of well-being. After her lesson ended, she happily chatted with the staff before getting ready to leave.
“I feel like I need to take the horse with me,” she said with a smile.
Nando will wait when he returns.