WINDHAM, Maine — Riding a horse takes confidence, practice... and teamwork between horse and rider. At Riding to the Top in Windham, riders with physical or cognitive challenges receive the specialized training they need to make all of that possible. A program like Riding to the Top relies on the skill of the staff, the dedication of volunteers, and the generosity of donors. And, the success of the work is carried – literally – on the shoulders of its horses. One of those horses, who has been part of the R-T-T team for 15 years, has been nominated for a special award. 27-year-old Luke - who is actually a pony - has brought confidence to countless riders.
Luke has a job. He is a Riding to the Top horse. Which means, for the most part, he’s got to be pretty close to perfect as horses go. At the moment, he is a little less than perfect having rolled in the paddock, so volunteer Janis Childs sets about grooming him, cleaning his feet, and saddling him up.
"We look for horses that like people that like to be around people, that are very tolerant, they have to have great ground manners and they have to be versatile," says Riding to the Top Executive Director, Sarah Bronson.
The work here is remarkable; the students who come to Riding to the Top come with challenges that range from cognitive and physical disabilities, to the more hidden disabilities…mental health issues, depression and anxiety. The staff and volunteers are highly trained – ready to help these riders enter an arena they might have never known was available to them. The horses - like Luke - have to be steady, patient, and reliable... it takes a special horse to do this work. "I think the initial response of almost all of our clients is awe – of being next to such a big animal," adds Bronson.
Today, Eli and Reid Martin arrive with their grandparents, and their little brother Henry – it is Friday and they have waited all week for this morning.
"This is their favorite day of the week – they call it horse day…and so they always ask – how many days until horse day?" says Nora Gormley, Eli and Reid's grandmother.
Sarah Bronson sees it this way. "Getting on the horse is a whole new piece, and I think that’s a lot about empowerment and respect for the animal underneath them but also that feeling of ‘Wow, I’m in charge of this big animal!”
Six year old Eli has been riding for a little more than a year and a half, most of that time with Luke. There is much for him to be thinking about as he travels around the ring – he’s learned how to sit deep in the saddle, the best position for his feet, how to hold the reins and steer. The experience of riding a horse like Luke has changed him in ways his family could not imagine.
His grandmother has seen the changes. "I think as he rode, he seemed to gain more confidence in his riding, but he seemed to gain more confidence in his speech as well and started just talking a lot more – now he talks a lot!"
This is teamwork – Eli in the saddle, Janis alongside, and Luke – providing a place for Eli to feel secure, and confident to try new things. Together, they have progressed to trotting …and navigating some obstacles in the ring. Luke is as much a teacher here as Susan DeGozzaldi is – she’s in the middle of the ring, guiding Eli and Reid through their drills. Luke provides a steadiness that has allowed Eli to discover his skill and love of horses.
And as the lesson winds down, they head outside to finish up. Even with our camera man running alongside to get the shot, neither Luke – or Eli – seem phased. It’s all in a days work for Luke – being the kind of horse where riders can practice their skills, grow confident in their abilities, and come to know the joys of sitting tall in the saddle.
Two members of the Riding to the Top team have been nominated by PATH International - the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International - for extraordinary service and dedication to the field of equine assisted services. Volunteer Pat Niboli of Windham was named Region One Volunteer of the Year, and Luke has been named Region One Horse of the Year. Both will now be considered in the International competition, with winners being announced in October. For more information about Riding to the Top, click here.