HorseSense expands services for special riders

posted Nov. 6, 2017 7:46 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Pat McKnight | Correspondent

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    Special rider Abigail Morrell demonstrated the riding skills she learned through her participation in the HorseSense for Special Riders riding program. Morrell, mounted on Fjord gelding Tito, is assisted by HSSR volunteers and instructors Kari Draheim, Gina Gerrard and Christy Lowell.

A 28-year-old equine-assisted therapy program recently celebrated its latest achievements in keeping its special equestrians riding high. HorseSense for Special Riders, serving special riders in the Coulee Region, held an open house Oct. 21 to show off its new indoor arena and to recognize its top Ride-A-Thon earners.

The open house activities included costume contests for humans and horses as well as face painting. The afternoon’s activities also included a demonstration by the program’s veterans drill team and riding demonstrations by the special riders who were the top earners in the Ride-A-Thon fundraising effort.

Started in 1989, the program serves special riders from ages 4 to 70. Most of the riders have some varying diagnosis of physical, cognitive, behavioral or psychological disabilities. HSSR’s mission is to enrich the lives of individuals with special needs through a partnership with horses. The program has expanded to allow the special riders’ family members to also enjoy riding.

“We’ve opened up the program to the siblings and friends of the special riders,” said HSSR Executive Director Maggie McDonald. “We are now an inclusive program.”

Over the years, the program was housed at various stables in the La Crosse area. In the fall of 2014, that changed when the program was able to move to its new home in the Coon Valley area. The new indoor arena, built through a successful capital campaign, now allows the program to run year-round.

The program offers seven-week sessions with riders coming once per week for a one-hour lesson. Classes are offered five days a week with between 10 and 15 riders participating each day.

Each rider is accompanied by instructors and volunteer walkers; one walks at the horse’s head and one or two side-walkers stay close to the horse and rider to ensure the rider’s safety.

A number of the program’s staff members are certified with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. The training they received through that organization means the equine therapy instructors can offer lessons designed to best benefit the riders.

Top sponsorship earners in the Ride-A-Thon demonstrated what they’ve learned in their classes. Donations received in the Ride-A-Thon were matched, up to $5,000, through a grant from the Robert and Eleanor Franke Charitable Foundation. Those funds are used to support the stable’s operations and help riders take part in the riding program.

“Riders who qualify can receive scholarships to participate in the program,” McDonald said.

It costs around $3,000 a year to care for each horse. The program currently has eight horses, some of which were donated, while others were purchased by the program.

Before being used in the riding sessions, each new horse undergoes a trial period of 60 days. During that time, they are worked with to ensure they are a suitable fit for the special riders.

HSSR also has several six-week session programs for veterans. Four of the veterans taking part in the program have formed a drill team coached by Michelle Bennett of Ridgeview Stables in Bangor. During the open house, the drill team performed to the strains of patriotic songs.

Now that the indoor arena is complete, the organization’s future plans include creating trails on the stable’s land.

More information about HSSR can be found on its website at

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