Hearts and Hooves

Cole Gonzales with volunteer Liz Akur and his mount, Boxcar (Credit: Kayla Reed)
Cole Gonzales with volunteer Liz Akur and his mount, Boxcar (Credit: Kayla Reed)
Volunteers at the Farr Park Equestrian Center lead the riders of the Hearts and Hooves therapeutic riding program in some stretches (Credit: Kayla Reed)
Volunteers at the Farr Park Equestrian Center lead the riders of the Hearts and Hooves therapeutic riding program in some stretches (Credit: Kayla Reed)

By Kayla Reed | LSU Student

With fewer than 10 minutes left before the session begins, there are still volunteers arriving to help.

"They just show up. Every day is an adventure," said Sarah Carlson. She never knows if there will be sufficient help, but somehow it always works out.

Carlson is the education curator at Farr Park Equestrian Center, home of Hearts and Hooves Therapeutic Riding Program. On 24 Mondays a year, Carlson, several volunteers and a group of friendly horses help physically and mentally disabled people improve their strength, balance and confidence.

The program began at BREC's Farr Park, located off River Road, more than 10 years ago. Carlson says BREC was influenced by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association's (NARHA) criteria for riders with disabilities.

"It noticed that (program) had a huge impact on all different sorts of people and decided to create a certification program and an outline for this particular style of riding." Carlson said, adding that Hearts and Hooves is classified as a recreational program due to lack of funds for certification.

"I would love to be able to go through the training process, even out of my own pocket if I could," she said. "But I can't."

That does not mean the program isn't making a difference.

"It's kind of astonishing," Carlson said of the program's benefits. While each individual's results are different, most riders see an improvement in core strength, coordination and balance. The horses also bring a sense of confidence and trust to their companions, forming an emotional bond.

"It's a friend. It's something they come to count on to learn to trust that animal," Carlson said. "It's amazing that this giant beast will do what you ask it to do if you just ask right."

Each class begins with half an hour of laps around the barn accompanied by stretching and basic equestrian training, such as how to guide the horse and hold the reins correctly. The second half of class is the fun part – games and obstacle courses designed to lighten the mood and improve coordination skills.

Staci Gonzales knows first-hand how beneficial therapeutic riding can be. Her son, Cole, 6, just finished his first six-week session.

"He has loved it," Gonzales said.

Cole was born two months premature and deals with external hydrocephalus, a condition where excess spinal fluid situates in the brain. He also suffers from epilepsy, hyperactivity and sensory processing disorder, which means ordinary external stimuli tend to overwhelm his brain.

Cole also happens to be one of the most popular riders. His thick glasses and big grin elicit smiles all round. While waiting to mount his horse, Boxcar (whom he adores because of his love of trains), Cole was darting around the barn, striking up conversation with any and everyone.

"It slows him down," Gonzales said of the program's benefits. "He has to control his actions." Cole waved and called out to his mother every time he and Boxcar passed by the bleachers. She waved back and sweetly reminded him to focus. He continued gabbing with the two volunteers walking with him.

Gonzales said the horseback riding has also helped to strengthen Cole's core muscles. She plans to sign him up for the next session, even though they have horses at home. The environment at Farr Park is less distracting and the program is much more affordable than therapy or private lessons, Gonzales said. She has been around horses her whole life, and loves the program's message. "Everyone is equal in the saddle. Horses don't judge you."

"The kids are great," said volunteer Abby Norris. "They make for a great Monday pick-me-up."

"You see their personalities come out. They all have their own little quirks," said Merideth Hebert, another volunteer. "People walking down the street don't really take the time to get to know their personalities or know that they really are smart."

Darrell Gardner, who also volunteers, believes the riders' benefit is directly related to the volunteers' effort. "They feed off of what you give them. The more you bring to them, the more they open up, the more they feel comfortable."

Hearts and Hooves comprises four six-week sessions at a cost of $120. The third session just ended, but the final one begins Monday (March 18). According to Carlson, there are still some spaces available in the 6:00 class. The minimum age is six and there is no maximum age. More information is available by calling Farr Park Equestrian Center at 225-769-7805 or visiting www.brec.org.