“Horses are just like us,” said Thibodeau, speaking to the participant while trailing a few paces behind Carrot, one of the center’s two therapy horses. “They have good days and they have bad days. You’re both having a great day today.”
The lesson was one of many that Thibodeau will coach this week. She currently works with just over 20 participants, with a few more potentially joining soon. Participants currently encompass around a 40-year age span, with the youngest participant 5 years old and the oldest in their mid-40s.
“We can start working with children when they’re as young as 4,” says Thibodeau. “And then we go up to any age.”
The program is available year round and serves a range of needs. According to a brochure for the center, equine therapy can have benefits for people with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, visual impairment, Down syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder, autism, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, emotional disabilities, brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, deafness, and those who have suffered cardiovascular accidents or strokes.
Thibodeau says the benefits of equine therapy can be as wide-ranging and specific as the needs that bring individuals to it.
“The motion of walking for a horse is the same bilateral movement that people have,” says Thibodeau. “Physically, it provides that sensory input that’s really important. The world can be really overwhelming, understimulating or overstimulating to people with different needs. But that motion helps. Especially for students with autism or ADHD where the cognitive and emotional part is important, the motion literally centers and relaxes them.”
The horses are also calming in their emotional stability. “Horses aren’t judgmental,” says Thibodeau. “They don’t care if you had a bad day in school or if you got any answers right. They’re there for you no matter what.”
Thibodeau says for people with some needs, interacting with other people can be intimidating. “But a horse isn’t intimidating. It might be physically at first, but once someone builds a relationship, the horse isn’t there to judge you, ask questions or want you to get the answers right in school,” says Thibodeau. “They’re just there and they’re happy to be there. I have kids who will talk to our lesson horses but won’t necessarily talk directly to me. It’s a great bridge to make that transition and help build relationships. We find it not only helps those children build a relationship with me but it also helps them at home and in school.”
Thibodeau says horses can illuminate an individual’s behavior. “Horses are mirrors of us,” says Thibodeau. “When you come to the barn, if you’re having a bad day and you’re gruff and you’re throwing things around, the horse knows that. And they take a step back and say, whoa, what’s up with you? They’re going to mirror what you’re feeling and emoting. And as soon as you relax, it’s amazing. The horse relaxes, too. And it can be really powerful for people to see that reflection of themselves.”
In addition to emotional centering, the bilateral movement of a horse can have physical benefits. “It helps people with really high muscle tone relax. For people with MS or spinal chord injury who are prone to muscle tension, it relaxes the muscles.” says Thibodeau. “And with low muscle tone, like a child who is slumped over, it helps build muscle tone.”
The center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. It survives on donations, grants, and participant fees. Though each half-hour lesson costs the center around $65 between horse care, arena time, and instructor time, they ask that participants pay a minimum of $45.
“Sixty-five dollars can be a prohibitive cost for participants,” says Thibodeau. “So we ask that they pay at least $45 on a sliding scale and that they participate in fundraising events, and that they spread the word about our program.”
In November, a fundraising event in Dover will benefit the center. On November 4, from 6 to 8 pm at Dover Town Hall, Linda Hoag will host a Kara Vita beauty products show. The event is free to attend and for every purchase made, Kara Vita will donate 10% of the purchase price to the Southern Vermont Therapeutic Riding Center. More information about the event can be found on the center’s website.
The center has a volunteer board of directors and is also supported by multiple volunteers who help in numerous ways, from assisting with horses and participants in lessons to writing grants or thank you notes for events. “Some of our volunteers have prior experience with horses and some have never been around a horse before,” says Thibodeau. “We offer volunteer training.”
Thibodeau became the center’s executive director in 2016. She has a background in education and in horseback riding and training. “For me, it was really exciting to be able to marry those two areas of my background,” says Thibodeau.
Thibodeau also says she is grateful for the community support the center has received. Originally started in Newfane, the center found its Wilmington home in the winter of 2016.
“We’re always accepting new volunteers and supporters,” says Thibodeau. “We couldn’t have our program without the support of the public. We love the support of this community as a whole.”