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The smell of dusty dirt crawled its way up my nose; the sound of kids talking and laughing rang in my ears; and their smiles shone bright in the dusky evening light. To me it was just another day, but to them, this day was precious. Today was their day, a day to escape the judgment and command of the world. Today, they would ride horses at In-Stride.
In-Stride is a therapeutic riding organization for people with physical conditions, such as paralysis, as well as hidden conditions, including autism, down syndrome, emotional instability, and developmental delay. The facility currently works with 35 students, ages four through twenty-seven, with no exit-age. In-Stride also has a student-mentor program for students who are 14 or older and deemed capable to teach their fellow students.
As I walked up, I glanced to my right and saw horses standing on the other side of the drive. In front of me, a shack-like entrance was adjacent to the barn. I thought I might be at the wrong place, but there wasn't a way to be sure since there wasn't a sign. In-Stride rents the property, which limits its ability to take on any projects to add on or change the area. I was not yet aware of the magic that pulsed inside.
Inside the activities area, it seemed like a dream. When four students came for their session, the air changed. The smell of dusty dirt was replaced with horse smells - leather and liniment and that horsey smell all equestrians revere. Exchanging excited whispers, the riders excitedly took their places. They cleaned and saddled their horses, put on riding helmets, and led their horses over to a "saddle up ramp". They all use the multi-purpose ramp, which riders can walk up, but it can also be used by wheelchair-bound students. One parent held each horse while the student mounted. Then all four students went through slow riding exercises, around objects and in patterns.
It was as if snow and frigid air were immediately replaced by sprouting green grass and warm breezes. The empty area was filled with the joy and excitement of children engaged in a passion. The worries and cares from earlier in their day dissipated; they were content and happy.
In-Stride receives their funding from grants and private donations. All workers at the facility are non-paid volunteers with outside professional jobs, and the horses are all rescues or donations. The organization also receives material donations, such as hay, straw, grain, and bedding.
"We do it for the kids, and when a wheelchair-bound student gets on a horse and a warm smile just grows on their face, you see the happiness and excitement. To us, all of us, it's all worth it" —Dana Flaherty, Director, In-Stride.
The students left with a jump in their step and memorable grins on their faces. Even the volunteers were joyful despite having come after a full day of work.
They experienced saddles of joy.