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Therapeutic Riding Builds Students’ Self Esteem

On the first day of school, several students at Thornapple Kellogg McFall and Page elementaries had one question for teacher Jill Pilecki: “When are we going to go horseback riding at Camp Manitou-Lin?”

“They absolutely love it and count down the days until we go,” says Pilecki, who takes the lower elementary cognitively impaired students riding. Forty students in grades K-12 participate in the program at the camp in Middleville.

Teachers and parents love the classes for their long list of benefits. Riding helps strengthen spine and pelvic muscles, improve posture and coordination and increase joint mobility, Pilecki says.

Emotional gains also are made. Horseback riding gives students a feeling of control, a sense of accomplishment and increased self-esteem, Pilecki says. “Therapeutic riding provides a calm and relaxing experience for students who may otherwise have high anxiety and emotional difficulties,” she says.

The smiles of the students on the horses make it clear they enjoy the activity. For Andrew Smith, it’s his favorite part of school. “It makes me feel happy,” he says.Matthew Lehman waits to ride Blaze while instructor Ardith Turpin does a safety check

How the class works

Grooming tasks, which teach students to be nice and gentle, are part of the session. Saddling up shows them how to do steps in order. Getting on the horse is the hardest part. A stool is placed by the horse’s side, and students climb up two risers to reach the horse. Certified therapeutic riding instructor Ardith Turpin and volunteers help lift the students up.

“Handsome and tall” and “eyes up” are among Turpin’s directions for students when they ride. These commands remind them to sit up straight and keep looking at where they’re going. Patient and kind volunteers guide the horse and rider around the ring.

“I just love seeing how theyprogress from their first time,” says volunteer Ameera Bonter.

The camp has 10 horses trained as therapeutic riding horses and students ride the same horse every week. “The kids build friendships with the horses,” says Jaimee Picard, the equestrian director at Camp Manitou-Lin.

Class sizes range from seven to 12 students. It operates for six weeks in the fall and six weeks in the spring.

The program began in 2008 with lower elementary cognitively impaired students. Middle and high school students have since been added. Each riding session costs $15 per student, which goes toward care of horses, riding instructor fees and maintenance. The school relies on donations, grants and camp scholarships to pay for the program.

Bradley West enjoys horseback riding Positive results

Pilecki has seen changes in behavior and anxiety issues of students riding the horses. “They learn to take responsibility of their actions and communicate effectively with those around them,” she says.

“It is just incredible to witness their confidence build and self esteem grow and to see the amazing gains they make physically and emotionally.”

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.

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