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In a sprawling field, nestled among rows of tall pines, a pond and stable of horses, 13 volunteers were welcomed, for the first time, to what will be their weekly home-away-from-home this summer.
Wednesday, with daylight waning, first-time volunteers stepped onto the grounds of Statesboro's Fletcher Park for an introduction and orientation to the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation's Stirrup Some Fun Therapeutic Riding Program.
The annual Stirrup Some Fun program, which officially gets underway March 22, is designed to offer therapeutic horseback riding sessions to children or adults living with mental, physical and/or emotional disabilities.
Introduced to Statesboro in 2004, the riding program hosts two four-week sessions in both the spring and fall, and intends to offer a unique opportunity to its attendees while improving their balance, coordination, muscle strength, rhythm, speech, social skills and self confidence.
"Stirrup Some Fun started back in 2004; it was huge hit and we have been going strong ever since," said Alison Brown, Stirrup Some Fun program supervisor. "The biggest benefit for these kids is the experience of being outdoors, and the bond formed with horses and volunteers. It is great therapy for muscles, hand-eye coordination and more."
"The program is really important to our community because it provides an opportunity for children to get out here and participate in a pretty unique activity. There are not many recreation departments that do this kind of thing," said Kayla Perry, an instructor for the program. "A lot of these kids have been in physical therapy for there entire lives. Sometimes therapy hurts, is boring or they just get tired of the usual activities; but when you put them on a horse, they don't even think about it as being therapy. It is just something fun that they love to come do. The riding is fun, helps confidence and really improves their flexibility and communication."
Wednesday, with the program's first rider of 2011 two weeks from saddling-up, the 13 new volunteers met with instructors to learn the basics of Stirrup Some Fun.
"It is very important for our program that our volunteers really know what is going on, so our kids get the most out of what they are doing, and everyone is safe," said Perry. "Usually, we try to have 30 volunteers participating at a time and about 8 or 9 riders throughout the day. Kids come out once a week and ride for about 30-45 minutes at a time."
According to Brown, more than 300 people have volunteered since 2004, and many continue to devote time to the program. Rider ages vary range from 4 to 21, she said.
Most of the program's newest members, as is the case every year, are college students using the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a field of interest - others are just intrigued.
"I'm a psychology major and interested in equine therapy," said Laura Studer, a Georgia Southern junior. "I have been riding horses since I was 5 and I know it can help relieve stress. I feel like it helps a lot. I think it will be great for the kids to have the feeling of being free - being able to get out of a wheelchair, be up and moving."
"This will be my first time doing anything like this. I read about it in the paper and decided to come to see what it is all about," said Elsie Vlcek. "I would really like to help in any way I can. I think the children can really get a lot out of this. I'm excited to see how the kids react to it."
After volunteer sign-in, the evening was spent with instructors demonstrating the techniques and roles each individual must know when working with horses and riders.
"It takes four people per horse and rider," said Brown, as a group of instructors simulated a ride. "We have side-walkers, leaders and an instructor."
Leaders, said Perry, are volunteers with prior horse experience that can take the reigns and maneuver the animal wherever they would like it to go. Side-walkers assist the rider and ensure a safe trip, she said.
"We don't want anyone kicked; we don't want anyone hurt," volunteer coordinator Lisa Dunn told the volunteers. "We just want a good session and for these kids to have a thrill. We can give children with disabilities the pleasure of riding horses and the experience of doing something independently, which a lot of youngsters with disabilities do not have access to do. It is a win-win situation for everyone, because you are going to love it."
"Whether you are here because you love horses, because you love children or here for classes, we are really happy to have you," she said.
With nightfall, the horses - Max, Skeeter and Blackjack - retired to the stables for a meal, where volunteers had their first chance to meet the animals they will be working with.
"I think it is really cool what they are doing with the program," said Katie Pursley, who took the opportunity pet the energetic Skeeter. "I think is really good for the kids to be around horses. I think they will really like it a lot."
The first spring session, according to Brown, will begin at 9 a.m. March 22. Call Brown at (912) 764-5637 or email her at email@example.com for more information or to volunteer.
Jeff Harrison can be reached at (912) 489-9454