by Marcella Peyre-Ferry
Maggie is a very flashy, pinto draft crossbred, and if you use a bit of imagination when you look at the markings on her cheek, you may be able to see the shape of a hand forming the sign language symbol for "I love you". If you do see it, it makes perfect sense, because Maggie is one of the lesson horses employed by Reins of Life Therapeutic Riding.
April 19 was the grand opening for Reins of Life Therapeutic Riding in their new location at Wolf's Hollow Farm in Atglen, PA. Now in a home of their own, the program is able for the first time in their 15 years of existence to have their own horses to use for students.
Reins of Life is leasing five acres including a barn, small arena and pastures from the Chester County Department of Parks and Recreation, which owns the 650 acre Wolf's Hollow Farm in Atglen. This is the first public use of the former Thoroughbred breeding farm in the nine years that it has been owned by the county, but it is hoped that by fall the site will be open as a public park.
Prior to finding their new home, Reins of Life operated out of established stables, using their lesson horses and facilities. Executive Director Judy Freedman learned about Wolf's Hollow after meeting one of the county's park rangers at Hibernia Park, and asked the Parks Department and the County Commissioners to let Reins of Life be their tenant. Now, the program has five horses of its own, with room for two more in the barn.
With more space and their own horses, Reins of Life will be able to expand their programming to new areas. Executive Director Judy Freedman plans to start a sibling riding program where a brother or sister can take riding lessons along with their challenged sibling instead of just watching from the sidelines.
"A lot of the time the siblings are very jealous that their brother or sister gets to ride," Freedman explained the intent of the program. "Also, once a month there will be a family riding day where a whole family can have a lesson."
Another feature of the new property that Freedman appreciates is the many acres of rolling countryside, where they will be able to take students on long country rides down the fenced lanes between pastures. She believes the chance to get out of the riding arena will help the students enjoy the outdoors and gain even more confidence. "They'll have more freedom to spread their wings," she said.
Established in 1993, Reins of Life is a non-profit corporation that has proved to be a successful therapeutic riding program for children and young adults ages 2 to 25 with physical, mental or emotional special needs. The program strives to improve physical development, socialization and learning through fun equine activities and riding while giving students confidence and a great sense of accomplishment.
Therapeutic riding stretches the mind and muscles, while the warmth and rhythmic movement of the horse provide physical benefits. Riders can gain improvement in motor skills, self-awareness, body strength, balance and coordination. There are also psychological benefits, including a feeling of independence, improved self-image, and enhanced confidence, attention span and motivation.
While the program is open to children through the age of 25, most of the participants tend to be younger riders. "We have a lot of young ones because the younger they start, the sooner you see results," Freedman said.
Because the program deals with children who have a wide range of special needs, lessons are tailored to fit each one's special requirements. "Each child is so different. They're unique so we build a unique individual program for each rider based on their strengths and abilities," Freedman said.
Beyond the riding lessons, there is a strong interaction between the students, the staff and the horses that builds emotional bonds. "A lot of times with autistic kids, they get very excited for the first time or show emotion for the first time," Freedman explained how the horses bring out new feelings in the students. "We make them feel so special, they feel like there's nobody else in the whole world for that hour."
Currently, there are four instructors with Reins of life, all of which are certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. For each rider, there are three volunteers walking alongside the horse to help in case they lose their balance. "We have a fabulous new base of volunteers, but we always need more," Freedman said.
To help them get ready for their grand opening, a number of local businesses donated time and materials, including Iron Spring Farm, which supplied the footing for the arenas. Independence Quarry donated the base material for the arena, and Eckman Trucking and John Stewart Excavating helped haul the materials and install them.
The program has also found support from a Boy Scout Troop based in nearby Atglen, which is building a wheelchair ramp for them, allowing them to serve children they could not accommodate before.
Reins of Life will hold an open house for potential students and volunteers on Sat. May 30 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., at Wolf's Hollow, but they are already accepting new students for the program. "We really want to attract families with children with special needs and people who want to volunteer," Freedman said. "People will have an opportunity to see the horses."
Reins of Life is seeking donations to help rebuild their scholarship fund, which was depleted by the costs of relocating. They are also seeking volunteers to help with lessons and stable work. Volunteers can begin at age 14 or 15 if they have extensive riding experience, or at 16 with no prior experience. Volunteer group training and on the job training is provided.
For more information on Reins of Life, call Judy Freedman at (610) 274-3300 or (610) 724-5305 or visit the Web site at www.reinsoflife.com.