Just 80 miles south of Athens, a veteran who suffered a stroke was riding horseback, led by Ohio University students. His wife, watching her husband ride from afar, hadn’t heard his voice in two years.
He had been riding at OU Southern’s horse park for several sessions, and he began to burst into song.
“Home, home on the range,” he belted. “Where the deer and the antelope play.”
Everyone stared in disbelief as a man who hadn’t spoken a word in years began to sing.
That is just one of the miracles that happens every day at OU Southern’s horse park, said Kelly Hall, the director of the equine studies program.
OU Southern Campus’s equine program is one of five accredited international schools to certify instructors in therapeutic riding, attracting dozens of students to enroll in hopes of pursuing a career that could change someone’s life.
A program run by students
Only two full-time faculty members staff the program, leaving the rest of the work up to students and volunteers to keep the rates for riding low. OU Southern charges $45 for a private community riding lesson and $35 for private therapeutic lessons.
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OU’s Southern Campus offers an equine studies program that certifies instructors in therapeutic riding. Dozens of students have enrolled in the program.
“It takes a lot,” Hall said. “If you have one person in a wheelchair, you’re going to have to have two side walkers — one on each side — and somebody to lead the horse. You’re going to have to have an instructor. … It takes a lot of volunteers to make this program happen.”
To earn their associate degrees, students are required to participate in 25 hours of instruction with a minimum of two riders with disabilities at a time.
“The community therapeutic horsemanship center serves the purpose of allowing our students to earn their hours, but it also serves the tri-state community for people with challenges,” Hall said.
Unlike many other equine programs, OU Southern has its own horse park and barns for convenience of completing lab hours and maintaining control over curriculum, attracting students from places as far as Hawaii to participate in the therapeutic riding program.
Students also teach, care for the horses and assume other responsibilities alongside volunteers and part-time employees.
“I’ve always liked helping people, and I love horses,” Julia Glebins, a first-year student, said. “I’ve been obsessed with them my entire life. It just seemed like a natural fit.”
A horse's strength
Horseback riding provides many benefits for people with physical disabilities. Riding develops a sense of coordination and balance and strengthens the same muscles used to walk, which can be especially useful for someone in a wheelchair.
“It benefits them to learn a different or better way of living,"Tabatha McKinney, who works at STAR Community Justice Center
“We have a couple riders who are paraplegic and in a wheelchair,” Hall said. “By putting someone on a horse and the horse walks for them, they’re exercising those muscles to help them hopefully gain some mobility.”
Glebins said she was touched when she was serving as a volunteer last year and saw significant progress in a boy she was assisting.
“One of our participants started out in a wheelchair and couldn’t hardly walk, and now he’s up walking on his own and doesn’t need very much assistance,” she said. “He rides on his own, too. … It’s pretty incredible.”
The warmth of a horse
The benefits of therapeutic riding go beyond what can be seen on the surface. Hall said emotional and mental therapy is a lot of what the program tries to provide through its lessons.
The park works with agencies for weekly lessons and has served foster care industries, regional mental health industries and more.
“It benefits them to learn a different or better way of living,” said Tabatha McKinney, who works at STAR Community Justice Center. STAR serves as an alternative to prison with the intent of rehabilitating nonviolent felony offenders and frequently works with the horse park.
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Students teach and care for the horses, among other responsibilities. The program attracts students from places as far away as Hawaii.
OU Southern is partnered with Safe Harbor, a domestic violence shelter in northern Kentucky. The two secured a grant to bring children to the park weekly for riding lessons.
“It’s fun,” Jacob Bowman, 11, said. “I learn stuff about horses. They’re fun to play with and cute. I like it here.”
Hall said OU Southern tailors programs to specific needs. In the case of Safe Harbor, a main goal is teaching kids to positively identify and cope with emotions.
“I love riding (the horses),” Keagan Thornton, 8, said. “I’ve learned about leading and riding and about my emotions.”
Horses have unique personalities just like humans, Hall said. People might be drawn to a particular horse and learn a lot about their feelings from interacting with the animal.
“The horses show what we don’t want to face,” McKinney said. “The horses can sense your emotions. … It gives us a therapeutic moment to talk about those emotions instead of stuffing it.”
Expansion of the program
Since OU Southern’s equine program began offering online courses in spring 2016, adjunct professor Mark Abell said he has seen an increase in enrollment. He said this semester he has his largest class size of 26 people in introduction to equine studies, with students from the Athens campus and high school students enrolling.
“It’s really caught on,” he said. “It’s interesting because in the online program, you have a wide variety of experiences. … It’s a really good way for us to go beyond just the campus.”
Online classes, which are heavy on economics and technology, focus on the commercial side of the horse industry, Hall said. She said the staff rewrote the entire curriculum to accommodate online courses.
“Technology is really important in the horse world, too,” she said. “The horse industry is very large. There’s about a million full-time jobs in the horse industry.”
Many students are interested in starting nonprofits related to horses, so Hall said the program created online courses on equine nonprofit development and management.
Hall said they are also adding a degree to the eCampus. There will be a soft launch in January and a full launch in fall 2018.
“That’s a big deal for us,” Abell said. “I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Abell said he was excited for the program to grow and continue to flourish because of all the good he sees come out of it every day.
“It’s an absolutely wonderful program,” Abell said. “Miracles come from it. … When you watch their expressions and the light bulb comes on, and they see all of that because of the interaction with the horses, it’s really powerful.”
Originally published for The Post on Sept. 28, 2017. Appeared in print Sept. 28, 2017.