FORT MILL — Nearly two dozen local special needs students are taking lessons that give them a different perspective on the world – how it looks from the back of a horse.
Sept. 14, the Anne Springs Close Greenway, in partnership with the Fort Mill School District, kicked off the Exceptional Equestrians program for students aged 5 to 10. It’s the 15th year the greenway and school district have teamed up to give the students this unusual educational experience. In total, 20 children from Riverview Elementary joined Beverly Kirkland, her team of volunteers and greenway staff to begin the program, which also includes some Rock Hill students.
The sessions last two hours and students return every Friday for two months. Kirkland said teaching the students how to ride has a variety of benefits.
“The number one benefit is motor, the rhythm of the horse helps kids relax. So, a lot of the kids that have low motor, or tense motor, or physical disability at all, it relaxes them,” she said.
“The other benefit is the rhythm of the horse is so calming. Kids will talk on the horse that will not talk anywhere else…there are things on their IEP (Individual Educational Plan) that every child must have in school, and they have goals, one of which is to follow multi-step directions…in order for the child to take the reins, that is one of the biggest benefits in the following of directions.”
Kirkland, a retired teacher who worked with special needs students in Fort Mill for 32 years, has been a part of Exceptional Equestrians for seven years. She said it takes considerable planning and teamwork to make it happen in the spring and fall each year.
“We have to work with teachers so that we know the severity of the [needs that challenge the] children. We have to work with the back riders so they know what to look for and how to work with the child. We have to work with the leads and the side walkers to make sure that they know what their cautions are,” Kirkland said.
As groups were brought in, the team gathered and led each child, one by one, up a ramp to saddle them onto a horse. Aided by a back rider who is positioned on the horse behind each child to keep them secure during the ride, lead walkers then guide each horse into a nearby horse ring for an experience that lasts about 30 minutes. Side walkers are positioned on either side of the horse throughout to ensure safety and engage each child in conversation.
While the benefits of horseback riding may vary by child. Some struggle giving a command like “walk on.”
“It is a mountain to climb”, said Kirkland.
Through the program, parents are given journals to track their child’s progress.
One mom, Shelly Martinez, whose 10 year-old daughter Lainey is autistic, snapped off pictures and cheered Lainey on while she took laps around the ring.
“She has a lot of sensory issues,” Martinez said.
“This has helped her posture. She loves it and when I wake her up in the morning when it’s time to do this, all I have to do is say ‘you’re gonna ride a horsy today’ and she’s got the biggest smile on her face.”