Project ASTRIDE uses horses for youths with challenges

Project ASTRIDE in Avon recently highlighted its therapeutic horseback riding
program while partnering with the Minnesota Mounted Shooters Association. The event helped make youths’ dreams of riding with cowboys in the Old West a reality. Pictured are (from left): Dale Florek, Clearwater; Shawn Steinbrecher, Milaca, leading PeDee the horse; rider Caiden LaBlanc, Albany and Laurel Theis, Cold Spring.

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
jennie.zeitler@ecm-inc.com

Sitting astride a horse is an experience with physical, mental and emotional benefits that cannot be duplicated in other ways. Project Adapted Specialized Training and Recreation Involving Disabled Equestrians (ASTRIDE) takes advantage of those benefits to help young people with a variety of disabilities gain social skills, participate in physical therapy and have a lot of fun at the same time.

Project ASTRIDE started in 1986 with a pilot program that included one instructor, three borrowed horses and six riders. There were three board members and 12 volunteers.

The center received accreditation initially by on-site representatives of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, now called Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH).

After renting facilities in three locations, Project ASTRIDE returned to its original location at Avon Hills Paint and Quarter Horses, south of Avon, in 2007.

It’s a 100 percent volunteer organization. Rent for the facility and other expenses are paid through donations and fundraising, as well as the rider fees which are 28 percent of the budget.

Volunteer Shellie Kremers, who has volunteered with the program for 14 years and is now board vice president, found Project ASTRIDE by accident when her husband’s cousin owned the host facility at that time.

“Even though I had horses since I was six years old, equine assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) were new to me,” Kremers said. “I like the fun the riders and the volunteers have; it’s truly a group activity.”

Each riding session includes one to three volunteers per rider. There is a horse-experienced person leading the horse and zero to two people (as needed) walking alongside the horse monitoring the rider. A certified instructor is in the center of the ring teaching the class.

The only volunteers needing experience with horses are the leaders; other volunteers do not need that experience. Volunteer trainings are held three times per year.

Classes are conducted in eight-week sessions from April through October, with private lessons between classes.

Riding sessions start out in the indoor arena where the horses and riders are warmed up. When the weather and daylight allow, they then move to the outdoor arena.

There are a number of games and other activities  for them. In one, buckets are placed around the arena and riders are asked to drop different colored beanbags into the buckets. Another activity develops motor skills by placing rings on cones.

One of the riders Kremers has been watching over the years is a wheelchair-bound boy who has begun riding independently now, without a side-walker. “This year his confidence was built up enough for him to want to try trotting for the first time,” she said.

When clients are not able to ride, they participate in ground classes. They bathe and groom the horses, learn parts of the horse, learn what the horse needs for food, practice horse safety and learn to lead a horse.

“They still get the benefit of being with the horse and acquiring social skills,” Kremers said.

Avon Hills Paint and Quarter Horses owners Rick and Marlys Backes do chores for the program’s seven horses. “They welcomed us back with open arms,” said Kremers.

Volunteer Irene Klein heard about the program from other volunteers. “People kept telling me about it,” she said.

Klein’s son, Matt, was in a coma for a year following an accident at age 17. He had horses before the accident.

“It’s very good to be up on a horse again,” Matt said. “Therapy works on my balance and my core strength.”

Matt has participated in the program for three years, with Klein volunteering for the past year.

“It’s the sound of horses, the smell of horses that makes a person forget all their worries,” said Kremers.

For more information call (320) 468-2524 or go online at www.astride.org.

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