In 1980, the community of Longmont, Colo., grappled with a need to serve people with disabilities and special needs. They gathered in a park, equipped only with some volunteers, a few horses, and the unwavering persistence to help people. The therapeutic riding programs that commenced then would cultivate a legacy of people whose passion and drive was to assist those with special needs through equine-assisted therapies. This spurred the foundation of the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center (CTRC), an organization focused on equine therapies for individuals with special needs.
Back then, the world of equine therapy was practically nonexistent. The Cheff Center in Michigan was the only other recognized center. Last year was their 50th year in existence. Some early founders of the CTRC received certifications as instructors at the Cheff Center, and soon after they began exploring equine therapy through what was then called the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). This would spur into motion further efforts to develop the recently-established world of equine therapy.
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During its early years, the CTRC leased two properties. In 1998, donations from the board of directors, staff and volunteers made it possible for the CTRC to own its first facility on the current Longmont property.
Michele Bruhn, Executive Director of the CTRC, discussed her experience and the impact the CTRC has on the community. She started out as a volunteer, gradually becoming an instructor, then the head instructor, until she became the executive director over two years ago.
“We serve roughly 500-600 participants per year,” Bruhn said. “With that, we are able to work with about 28 horses on the property. We have a staff of 15, and we have a volunteer workforce of 1,000 people per year.”
The CTRC serves a wide range of participants, from children to older people, who are struggling with any mental or physical disability. In addition to an impressive volunteer workforce and dedicated staff, Bruhn added how participants’ needs are matched with horses and the effect a horse’s breed has on a rider.
“We have a wide range of horse breeds, shapes and sizes,” Bruhn said. “The reason for that is we have a wide range of participants. Based on our participants’ needs, we’ll match our horses up with our riders to accommodate their physical, emotional and mental needs. For example, when someone is on a horse, the horse moves bilaterally. It stimulates the same muscle groups that a person uses to walk. If someone is in a wheelchair, or someone has an injury, just being on a horse will help stimulate those core muscle groups.”
Not only do horses help people’s physical needs, but they help with emotional and mental needs as well. The instructors have also developed various types of adaptive reins to help disabled people improve at horseback riding - everything from “ice cream cone reins” for younger riders to hold their reins correctly (this effective method reminds younger riders to “keep their ice cream cones from spilling”), “fuzzy reins” for those with sensory integration disorders, “ladder reins” for those who may have suffered a stroke and can only use one arm, and “rainbow reins” for those with learning disabilities so they understand where they need to grab to maintain control of the horse.
“Horses are nonjudgmental,” Bruhn said. “If someone’s coming to us working through any goals that might evolve around any self-esteem issues, or anything like that, horses are empowering.”
Bruhn explained that the horses give people a sense of self-confidence and joy.
“We have children that come to us who might spend most of their lives in a wheelchair,” Bruhn said. “And now they’re the tallest ones in the room.”
Bruhn added that the participants build strong relationships with the instructors and volunteers that are unique and last for years.
“They’re able to build these connections like nothing else in their lives,” Bruhn said. “Whether you’re talking about volunteers, staff, or riders, we have volunteers who work with our riders and have been working together for ten plus years. So, they come back because of the relationships that are built. We have friendships that have lasted lifetimes.”
In fact, research has shown that equine therapy benefits individuals with disabilities. A study was published in July 2018 after six months of gathering data from adolescents aged six to sixteen, 44 percent of whom had an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and who were also part of a randomized study of therapeutic horseback riding. The purpose of the study was to determine if therapeutic horseback riding affected riders’ irritability, hyperactivity, communication, and social skills. Data accumulated from the study found “significant improvements” in cognition, communication and social skills. Hyperactivity and irritability levels had also declined following the six-month period. Therapeutic horseback riding was deemed extremely effective in alleviating social, verbal and irritability symptoms of ASD, which could be utilized as intervention for children and adolescents with ASD.
The CTRC is one of the pioneering organizations to establish a welcoming community of people and horses for those with any physical or mental disability. Next year, the organization will be celebrating its 40th anniversary. The CTRC has a premier accredited center with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International, and the organization is excited for potential partnerships and events the future has to offer.
“We’re in a really exciting time,” Bruhn said. “We work with a wide range of organizations and collaborate with different groups along the Front Range.”
Specifically, CTRC anticipates more collaborations with organizations aimed at helping many people with varying needs, partnering with horse-focused organizations, working to promote their name and mission to help as many people as possible, and “continuing to be a leader in the industry of equine-assisted activities and therapies.”
“Part of that is continuing the work that we currently do,” Bruhn said, “serving the community through the power of the horse and making horses accessible to people up and down the Front Range across nine counties.”
This year, CTRC organized a fundraiser called Paint the Pony, an event where every ten thousand dollars donated to the center earns a stripe on the pony’s body.
“We are excited and proud to be partnering with the Arabian Horse Association (AHA) with this horse statue as our fundraising horse,” Bruhn said. “We are still figuring out a name for him, but we’ll be working with our riders and our volunteers to figure out that name.”
Bruhn emphasized how critical the support of volunteers, participants, donors, and community is to the mission of the CTRC.
“I spoke briefly about our volunteer workforce,” Bruhn said. “Ninety percent of what you see out here has been donated, including our horses. We could not do what we do without our supporters - our volunteers, our donor base, the community. We would not exist if it wasn’t for our community supporting us and the work we do.”
The CTRC has a goal to raise $100,000 to continue their mission of helping individuals with disabilities. As of now, they are at $77,000 of their $100,000 goal. Paint the Pony ends December 31. If you are interested in donating or volunteering to support CTRC’s mission, visit their website or call (303) 652-9131.