Riding center horses have the healing hoof

FALL CITY - The horses are here to help at the Hawk Ridge Therapeutic Riding Center in Fall City. Located on a forested and scenic 19-acre farm, the center teaches horsemanship to children age 4 and older and adults with various physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.

The mother and daughter team of Joanne and Kate Woodcock founded the center in May 2000, along with their friend Doug McCowan, a veteran therapeutic horse instructor. The center, which includes a 12-stall barn, a 20-by-60-meter indoor riding arena and a 20-by-40-meter outdoor riding arena, is part of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). The Woodcocks and McCowan run the center, along with instructors Mary Schneidler and Kady McNaughton, who both started out as volunteers.

Hawk Ridge uses hippotherapy, which is essentially horseback riding with therapeutic benefits that help treat individuals who suffer from a variety of ailments. Students are taught the basics of horse care and how to ride a horse. "One of the things we do, too, is we don't just bring the horse into the arena," said Joanne, who serves as executive director of the center. "To the extent that they can, our riders are asked to groom, saddle, bridle and take care of their horses, and then after the lesson, bring the horse back."

Hawk Ridge is an ideal place for people who want to learn how to ride a horse and who have special needs, as it would be difficult, if not dangerous, to learn at a more traditional riding school. This hard work results in a sense of accomplishment and responsibility as a side effect of the therapy, the staff said. "What we do ... we're more interested in teaching horsemanship and we're more a recreational place for people with special-needs as opposed to a therapy center," said Kate.

The actual therapy is not complicated and often involves simply letting the horse do the walking. The gait of the horse (the way it walks) allows the rider to experience a full range of motion and tactile feedback that can be crucial in treating physical disabilities. "There are some [riders] that basically all we do is use the motion of the horse to help them physically," said Joanne. "There are others ... who are riding independently and can walk, trot, canter and do everything, and then we have a whole range in between."

The staff at Hawk Ridge works hand in hand with the parents of younger riders, tailoring their lessons to suit each child's unique needs. Specific goals are worked into the lessons, and may include simple tasks such as saying "please" and "thank you," and dismounting successfully.

A typical riding lesson is a hour long, with about three students taking part. Students have one lesson a week for about nine to 11 weeks, which is the length of a typical session. There are about four of these sessions a year, and since each lesson costs $30, that adds up to about $300 in the course of a typical session. Sponsors can help defray the costs of the lessons, which pay for approximately 40 percent of the center's operating costs. Currently, there are around 50 students, many of whom are repeat customers that have been coming to the center for several years, said the Woodcocks.

A lot of the center's riders suffer from a form of autism, and the staff is well trained in how to help. "With them, the benefits are they're paying attention, they're sequencing, they're following direction," said Kate. "A lot of the autistic kids really don't have balance and coordination issues, most of them are very athletic, but it's getting them to connect with the instructor and interact with another person and with the horse ... that is really good for them.

"Then for the kids we have in the Asperger's [Disorder] end of the autistic spectrum, where they're usually very bright and high-functioning but they have a lot of social issues, engaging in a class activity and having to be respectful of the instructor, the horse and the volunteers [is] a very positive thing for them."

The bond that develops between horse and rider helps the children mature emotionally and gain confidence in their abilities.

"It's also really good because not only with autistic kids but I'd say most of our riders, the fact that they do something, and the response is immediate, so that if they 'whoa,' the horse will stop. If they tell the horse properly how to move, then it'll go, and so it almost kind of bypasses the mind and goes directly to the muscles," said Joanne. "It's really great feedback for them."

Krista Holmberg, whose 7-year-old daughter Haley has been going to the center for three and a half years, praised the center's positive effect on her daughter. Haley, who has tight heel cords and is thus a "tippy-toe walker," benefits from being able to use the stirrups while riding, which helps treat her condition. "She's done extremely well...but mostly [it's] her confidence level," said Holmberg. It's just been great all the way around."

Elora, a 10-year-old, is Haley's riding lesson classmate and has bi-polar and sensory integration issues. "It's been very good for their esteem, too, [and] confidence levels have really gone up with both of the girls, hugely," said her mother, Heidi Koss-Nobel.

The family-friendly environment is another form of therapy in and of itself, the staff said. Part of that comes from the extensive volunteerism that gives the center its energy and charm. There are 50-60 volunteers that help keep the center in operation.

"When we founded [Hawk Ridge], we were very specific that we didn't want this to be a place where a volunteer came, did their hours and went [home]. We wanted it to be a place that they felt invested in and they felt was partially built because of them and a sense of ownership," said Kate. "So we've developed a real sense of community, and it's amazing to watch because volunteers who never would've met each other outside here become friends and so we've really created this whole community of people. It's been really positive to see that kind of growth."

Those interested in contacting the center for information can do so by calling (425) 222-0080.

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