LAURINBURG — With names like Simon, Red Ted, and Toby, most of the staff members at the St. Andrews University Ride Like A Knight therapeutic riding program don’t sound very much like teachers.
But the 11 horses — one miniature — who work in the program help bring their riders out of their shells in a way that their human instructors cannot.
Since the mid-1990s, the program has served people of all ages who are dealing with physical or cognitive disabilities. Currently Ride Like A Knight serves about 100 people in weekly sessions, from children with autism and attention deficit disorder to troubled youth and the elderly, at St. Andrews’ equestrian center on Hasty Road.
“When they come out here, they’re forced to listen because they’re on top of a horse and they know that they need to listen to be safe and to feel some security,” said North Laurinburg Elementary School teacher Catherine Pinkston, who brings a class to ride at St. Andrews every week during the school year.
The first school to offer a four-year therapeutic horsemanship degree, St. Andrews has always provided a nexus between horses and those with disabilities. The Ride Like A Knight program is certified by the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International, and one of its students, Milee Huffman, was named the organization’s Child Equestrian of the Year in 2012.
Though some students are initially fearful of their equine therapists, program director Liz Dulski can make almost any child feel at ease on a horse, finding their comfort zone at the barn and expanding it to the mounting and riding areas.
“I was scared a little bit but I got on Marshmallow and it was cool,” said 10-year-old Lexi Troublefield of her first experience at St. Andrews. “Now I get on by myself.”
The half-hour riding sessions sometimes consist of lessons on steering the horse, trotting, and standing in the stirrups, but instructors also tie in educational activities focusing on words, colors, and math skills. Riders are usually assisted by a horse leader and one or two sidewalkers.
“A lot of these riders that have ADHD, their brain can’t focus because they’re wanting to move,” said Pebbles Turbeville, SAU’s director of therapeutic horsemanship. “So, when they’re on the horse, it kind of settles their brain because they’re moving and their senses feel that, so they’re able to focus on other skills.”
The horses themselves, typically donated or leased to the program, come to the program already easygoing creatures, undergoing weeks of training to become accustomed to working in close proximity to numerous people — especially their sometimes unpredictable passengers.
“We’ll be schooling them and we’ll start shifting our weight because when the riders go off balance — they do that, they’re kids, they’re learning and they don’t always know where their bodies are — we want to make sure that won’t upset the horse,” Dulski said.
With leaders and sidewalkers, each class can require up to nine volunteers in addition to the SAU upperclassmen instructing each class under Dulski’s supervision.
“It’s been interesting working more with the horse and being more aware of everything that’s going on around you,” said Tabby Russell, a senior therapeutic horsemanship major from West Virginia. “Everybody is just different in their own way.”
In addition to teaching therapeutic horsemanship in the 850 PATH centers worldwide — 30 in North Carolina — the school’s therapeutic horsemanship students also go on to graduate study in psychiatry and physical therapy, applying involvement with horses in those careers as well.
Sarah Lishen, a senior from Florida, hopes to work as an instructor for high-level equestrians riding with physical disabilities in the Paralympic Games.
“It kind of shows people that it’s not just what you think you can’t do, it’s what you think you can,” she said.