ALVARADO – The staff and volunteers of Wings of Hope Equitherapy see lives changed every day.

Clients and students who patronize the nonprofit equestrian therapy program come with a myriad of challenges – physical, social and mental – and the lifestyle changes and improved motor skills and strength they develop are profound.

“Our students range from age 3 to 75 years old,” said Allison Griggs, riding instructor and volunteer for Wings of Hope. “We don’t turn anyone away who wants to be involved in the program.”

She cites autism, spina bifida, stroke, cerebral palsy and other conditions that many of the riders have. She notes that while riders with challenges see motor skills, socialization, sensory processes and multi-tasking abilities vastly improve after several sessions on horseback, the most pronounced benefits observed by the staff and volunteers are physical.

“We’ve seen people who were confined to wheelchairs virtually 24/7 become able to walk as a result of the therapy,” Griggs said.

Wings of Hope employs the use of 14 horses in its therapeutic riding program.

“I think one of the benefits of therapy on horseback is that a horse is neutral,” Griggs said. “They don’t interact with people like we interact – but we find that our riders create their own language with the horse.” 

She said the four-beat motion of a horse’s walk very closely simulates the natural gait of a person walking and the rhythms riders experience while riding help to create coordination.

“I’ve seen children’s hand-eye coordination improved with the therapy,” she said. “And I’ve seen five riders who said their very first words while on horseback.”

She said horses are aware of the type of riders they are carrying and are gentle with them.

Program director Julie Rivard explained the organization in an interview Tuesday.

“Since we are a nonprofit organization, we have a board of directors and are under the auspices of the North American Riding for Handicapped Association,” Rivard said. “The organization is celebrating its 40th anniversary in Fort Worth this year.”

Requirements for participating therapeutic riding centers are stringent with frequent visits by NARHA to ensure all regulations are being met.

“They check to see that our facility is safe and up to code,” Rivard said. “Our instructors have to be certified, which means that they must attend ongoing training and must have 25 hours of training to be certified.”

Wings of Hope is fully accredited by NARHA and is listed as a premier center.

Although riding instructors must be certified, the staff is quick to note there is plenty of work for non-certified volunteers, including fundraising assistance, maintenance, working in the arena and leading prayer groups.

Wings of Hope, a faith-based riding center, was created in 1996 by Margaret Dickens and Patti Pace, who wanted to promote the development of the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of each rider in a Christian setting.

According to a publication by the organization, just enough funds were donated to build a covered arena in memory of the late Nancy Knox, a longtime quarter horse and cutting horse enthusiast. Lockheed Martin helped to build stalls and tack room, H.B. Zachary Construction donated concrete and Morrison Supply Company donated the plumbing and fixtures. Three construction companies from Cleburne sent seven trucks of asphalt to build the parking area and United Co-op Services donated outdoor lighting.

“Things just started to fall into place,” said Dickens, who serves as executive director. “Generous individuals and companies wanted to participate.”

Wings of Hope, which is in its 13th year of operation, has 72 clients, more than 70 volunteers and six paid staff members.

For more information about the Alvarado-based therapeutic riding center, contact the office at 817-790-8810 or visit the Web site at www.wingsofhopehorses.org

E-mail Paul at paul.gauntt@wninews.com