From left: Instructor Becca Smith and student Reese Milligan with Corduroy, and Jennifer Milligan with Magic enjoy a day at Horse Power for Life.
December marks the tenth anniversary of Horse Power For Life, a non-profit organization using horses to help families impacted by cancer. Founded by Shiree Radie and Barbara Rosoff, the organization provides a program combining riding instruction and interaction with horses to patients in treatment, survivors, family members and caregivers.
“A lot of people think that it is just the patient or it’s just kids. It’s men, women or children, it’s anyone who is currently going through treatment as well as survivors. We also opened the program up to people who have lost a loved one to cancer,” Radie said.
At the time they founded the organization, both Rosoff and Radie had lost family members to cancer. “We both have the passion for horses. There are a lot of therapeutic riding places, why not for cancer?” Radie said. “I found there were several programs around the county that specifically focus on cancer, but there was really nothing in this area for therapy for cancer.”
Instructor Becca Smith has a special place in her heart for her students, and all the Horse Power For Life participants, having lost her husband to brain cancer in 2011, and prior to that, surviving her own struggle with colon cancer.
Smith’s cancer was discovered while she was undergoing a routine screening colonoscopy. “I was lucky they caught it just before it perforated the colon, I was in treatment for 10 months. It was horrible, but I’m here,” she said.
Smith became familiar with Horse Power For Life when she was teaching at the barn where the program was held, but at that time she was not directly involved. “My husband had been gone for a year and a half. I was starting to feel like my feet were on the ground and I wanted to do something for the others in the world that were struggling with cancer,” she said.
At the same time, co-founder Rosoff was facing medical issues and would not be able to continue teaching the program. The connection was made and Smith not only became the instructor, but offered her own stable in Glenmoore, PA, as a new home base.
“It just is ideal. I have a small, five horse barn. I know all the horses very well, so there’s no unpredictability. None of us thought twice about it. We couldn’t make it happen fast enough,” Smith said.
“She can really relate to what the families are going through,” Radie said. “We really love having the program at Becca’s farm.”
The Horse Power For Life program covers 16 weeks of 90 minute visits to the farm for the entire family that may or may not include riding. “It’s a 16-week program, but that’s not consecutive weeks. I work around everybody’s schedule to make it happen comfortably for them,” Smith said. “It’s not a group activity. Each Horse Power family comes independently. They have their own private time.”
“Cancer affects the whole family. You’re constantly worried about it coming back. This is a way for them to come for an hour and a half session and get their mind completely off it,” Radie said. “We really encourage the whole family to do it, since the whole family is involved in the treatment.”
Previous riding experience is not needed to take part in the program. Sometimes it is one family member who is interested in riding while the others are involved with the horses less directly, or simply watch from a distance. It is the experience with the animals in a soothing environment that helps relieve the stress that goes along with cancer and impacts the patient and their entire family.
“The horses are formidable, big, somewhat intimidating animals when you don’t live and work around them every day,” Smith said.
Smith recalls how her horses helped her deal with the physical and emotional stress from cancer. “At the times that I could be with the horses, it’s almost as if they knew--they sense something. They seem to give you this wonderful sense of peace. Their presence and their quietness and their demeanor is very gentle and soothing. That for me happens both on the ground when I’m working with them and when I’m riding,” she said.
“We have had a handful of clients that did have pretty extensive horse backgrounds. I would say 95 percent of our students have never been around a horse before,” Radie said. “It’s structured riding instruction, but they do not have to ride if they don’t want to.”
Begin with the Basics
Because most of the Horse Power for Life students are beginning riders, they begin with learning the basics of handling a horse such as haltering, leading and tacking up. Over the course of the 16 sessions, most students go from total inexperience with horses to being comfortable at a rising trot.
One aspect that is related to the rider’s condition is that they are required to have a physician’s consent. “We want their oncologist to know we are doing the program, and then they write down any restriction for them,” Radie explained.
In addition to the original program offered by Horse Power For Life, there is now a week long summer camp experience for youngsters affected by cancer.
Smith has expanded her existing camp program to include Horse Power For Life youngsters. The Horse Power For Life children are included in all of the regular riding camp activities including morning riding lessons, swimming, lunch, and crafts.
“We had six students at camp who were here through donation from supporters of Horse Power For Life. There are 12 to 15 who are on a waiting list for next summer,” Smith said.
Camp sessions are not restricted to Horse Power For Life students. A roughly 50-50 mix of students can be found in the camp.
As with the original program, some of the camp students are recovering from cancer, while others are dealing with cancer in other family members. “It’s been a tremendous stress on them all, its life changing,” Smith said. “It’s so nice when you get to find out how incredibly special it was for the client and the whole family.”
“To be able to give back to those who are struggling, in some way, shape or form means so much to me,” Smith said. “It’s as much of a gift for me to be able to do it, as for them to receive it. I really do understand. There is nothing that can be said to make anybody feel better.”
For more information visit the website at www.horsepowerforlife.org or the Horse Power For Life facebook page.