Every week, Andrew Yeretsky does exercises to help with his muscle tone and his posture.
But Andrew, who has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, doesn’t do those exercises in a physical therapist’s office or at a gym. He does them outside, on horseback.
Andrew, 15, is one of about 20 clients who takes lessons at Victoria’s Riding Therapy Center, which works with kids and adults who have a diagnosis, usually for either a cognitive or physical disability. The center is celebrating its 30th anniversary Saturday with a special horse show for all the riders to show their skills.
Therapeutic riding and other forms of equine-assisted activities and therapies have increasingly become popular for kids and adults with a range of chronic conditions and diagnoses.
On Thursday, Andrew joined his friend Ruth Coffey, 13, for a lesson to prepare for Saturday’s show.
For Ruth, taking classes at the Riding Therapy Center helped her develop verbal skills, her mom Annie Coffey said. Ruth has a congenital disorder called agenesis of the corpus callosum, which means that the part of the brain that connects the left and right hemispheres is absent. While on horseback, Ruth can practice taking a plastic ring from one volunteer on her left side and then changing hands and passing the ring to a volunteer on her right side, an exercise that encourages communication between the two hemispheres.
Coffey said she thinks riding helped her daughter become more comfortable with showing affection when she was young. At the end of each class, riders tell their horses that they did a good job.
“When she was very young she didn’t like to be held, didn’t want eye contact,” she said. “She just didn’t want to be touched.”
After a couple of years of riding, that changed, Coffey said.
“She’s very affectionate with us now, and I feel like it kind of started out here with the horses,” she said.
Myra Yeretsky, Andrew’s mom, said therapeutic riding helps her son because a horse’s gait actually simulates a human’s gait. She started taking her son to lessons at the recommendation of his pediatrician.
“Since he can’t walk, they were trying to help improve his posture, his overall posture” through riding, Yeretsky said. Riding also allows Andrew to practice multitasking on the horse’s back while trying to sit up.
Judy and Hank Gillespie opened the Riding Therapy Center in 1989 in Nursery to provide therapeutic riding for kids and adults who could benefit from it. Now, 30 years later, executive director Michelle Olsovsky said the center is working to continue to support the riders they work with. The Riding Therapy Center currently works with about 20 clients and many volunteers who help during lessons. Riders with a range of chronic conditions can see benefits from lessons, including people with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“A horse is just like a dog, they’re not going to tell your secrets,” Olsovsky said.
Victoria County’s center is one of about 900 centers that make up the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International network, and it’s among an even smaller number of organizations that have achieved “premier accredited” status from the group.
Kaye Marks, director of marketing and communication at the network, said many of students who take classes at PATH centers are people with autism. But equine-assisted activities and therapies are increasingly being used by military veterans who might suffer from anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. Riding is also growing in popularity among older students with Alzheimer’s or dementia, she said.
Therapy and activities that incorporate horses and riding has also proved useful for people who have suffered trauma or are recovering from an eating disorder.
Olsovsky said Saturday’s event will feature the horse show but will also include concessions and other games and activities. The center is hoping to raise money to support its operations but also to spread the word about the lessons available and the work the center does. In total, Olsovsky estimates more than 100 kids, teens and adults have taken lessons at the Riding Therapy Center.
For Andrew and Ruth, Saturday’s show gives them a chance to show off their skills to their friends and family but also to share a special place they’ve found at the center’s 20-acre property in Nursery.
“They can be themselves here,” Yeretsky said about Andrew and Ruth. “They have their own little world.”