The transformative power of a relationship with animals has benefited people in need—and a long-time volunteer.

Can putting people with special needs in close proximity to 1,000-pound animals improve their sense of control?

Doneta M. Wire has seen the counterintuitive dynamic play out repeatedly over the years as children and adults with a variety of personal struggles gain a sense of control over their world for the first time by working with horses.

The transformative effect of therapeutic riding programs has kept Wire volunteering her time and financial skills for 15 years to a not-for-profit Indiana equine facility, Agape Therapeutic Riding Resources Inc, in Cicero, Ind.

One young man with developmental disabilities for whom Wire has provided riding assistance over the past five years progressed from frozen terror to independent riding and even competing in the Special Olympics. She and others credit his increased confidence with his ability to excel in a job at a community agency for the developmentally disabled.

The riding was key “in the building of his sense of self esteem and figuring out something he could do independently and really have some pride in,” Wire says.

She has seen similar benefits among autistic, physically disabled, and emotionally damaged children, who benefit from a variety of programs the riding center offers to such children. 

“Kids open up to horses before they would open to people, because people may have hurt them,” Wire says.

The process of introducing physically, mentally, or emotionally fragile people to the horses begins slowly. Program participants, guided by their own certified instructor, may spend several sessions grooming and interacting with their assigned horse before beginning to ride them. The idea is to establish a transformative relationship between the person and the animal, Wire says.

That relationship also is eased by the program’s use of older, retired horses that are comfortable with repetitive tasks and trained to walk away from angry responses from sullen teenagers, for instance.

Wire recalls a photo taken of a group of at-risk youth during one of their first sessions with the animals. “All of the kids acted like, ‘Big deal,’” she says. “In the picture taken at the end of the semester, they were smiling and had their arms around each other—it was a total transformation.”

Wire, who began volunteering after hearing coworkers praise the effects of such programs for their kids, also has benefited from therapeutic riding.

“It’s made me more tolerant in the job setting and more open to other people’s problems and issues as a coworker,” says Wire, who is contracting coordinator for Cigna Healthcare and Sagamore Health Network.

“Animals can have an amazing impact on people when people are open to the experience,” she says.

Wire urges people interested in volunteering at a therapeutic riding center to visit to find local facilities.

Publication Date: Friday, November 01, 2013

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