Remarkable hoofprints

Story by ELISSA McCRARY/Photos by JASON GETZ

Most Saturday mornings, 16-year-old Parr Burton, of Sandy Springs, is bursting with anticipation to get to Special Equestrians of Georgia and bond with her favorite horse, Tux.

Parr, who has cerebral palsy, starts her ride inside the Alpharetta arena with the assistance of two volunteers who boost her onto Tux. They remain on each side as the horse is slowly led around the ring by occupational therapist Karel Dokken.

But while Dokken pulls his reins, Tux tugs Parr’s heartstrings. At the end of every 30-minute ride, the horse is destined for and no doubt accustomed to a loving hug. Parr inevitably leans forward in her saddle gently embracing Tux around his neck and plants a few kisses on his nose after she dismounts.

“Another great Saturday,” says Beth Burton, Parr’s mother. “I don’t think Parr can imagine her life now without Special Equestrians and riding every Saturday morning. She looks forward to it all week and starts checking the weather forecast on her phone every Wednesday. If it looks like rain, she really worries that riding will be canceled.”

Located on a small century-old farm, Special Equestrians of Georgia offers therapeutic riding and hippotherapy programs for people with physical, behavioral, emotional and developmental challenges.

Executive director, Stacey Edwards, founded Special Equestrians of Georgia in 2006 after working several years as lead instructor and program director of an equestrian therapy group for special-needs children and adults. Her organization has over 40 students and also works with The Cottage School in Roswell, a school for students with special needs.

Edwards’ 11-acre farm includes an outdoor riding arena, a barn dating back to 1910 and fenced pastures for the farm’s 20 horses. Special Equestrians works with children and adults alike, and Edwards says some of the 14 adult students started there in riding programs as youngsters.

Horseback riding rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to the human gait, so riders with physical disabilities often show improvement in flexibility, balance and muscle strength. Hippotherapy uses the horse as a therapy tool, whether that is occupational therapy, physical therapy or therapeutic riding.

Edwards, who is certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, sees the transformative power of therapeutic riding every day.

“I have seen children who can’t walk, walk after six weeks of riding,” she says. “Children and adults who have difficulty communicating and connecting, form an instantaneous bond with the horses. They smile, they laugh, they hug and kiss the horses. It never gets old to see that attachment happen. It’s still almost magical to me.”

Edwards says horses are peaceful and keenly perceptive, adding, “They seem to instinctively know when a person needs them, especially children. I have watched it happen a million times and wish I could bottle what it is that makes the horse so helpful to the special needs community.”

Special Equestrians offers several equine-based therapy programs in addition to therapeutic riding, including equine-assisted psychotherapy, which focuses on psychology under the guidance of a licensed clinical professional. Studies have shown it to be effective treating behavioral issues, stress, anxiety, trauma and attention deficit disorder, among others.

“When you take someone who has emotional and behavioral challenges and pair them with a horse, the horse will give very clear signs to that person about their feelings,” Edwards says. “Riding and working with a horse helps them learn about themselves, their body language, personal space, and especially, empathy. This is perfect for people who have autism, anxiety and depression.

“Horses give unconditional love and understanding,” she adds. “They are just willing to accept us, as us, and allow us to be a part of their space. Caring for horses gives a huge burst to self-esteem and self-respect to adults and children who often don’t receive that in the human world.”

Edwards is also working to launch a therapy program for military veterans and current armed forces members who are dealing with physical and mental challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The cost for a riding session is $35, but Edwards often reduces or waives payment if parents can’t afford it. Therapists and PATH-certified program directors volunteer their time with Special Equestrians.

With a background in education and 40 years of experience with horses, Edwards says it seemed right for her to combine the two passions. She is a special education teacher to fourth and fifth grade students at The Cottage School and started horseback riding at age six while living in Queens, New York. Her family later moved out to Westchester County.

“I took every opportunity I could get to be around horses when I was growing up in New York,” Edwards says. “I spent countless hours playing with model horses and reading all the “Black Stallion” book series. And when I went away to camp in the summers, I would ride everywhere.

“When I started college, I bought my first horse, much to my parents’ dismay,” she adds. “I worked at the barn and supported the horse myself. I did that until I had my first son, and from then on, I continued to ride as much as I could.”

Edwards moved to the Atlanta area in 1998 and says she has always connected with the determination and inner joy of people with special needs.

Blending her passion for horses with therapy started as a personal cause when Edwards sought help for her oldest son, who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“My mother-in-law signed me up as a volunteer with a group offering therapeutic riding that she thought may be helpful for my son,” Edwards says. ”Honestly, I tried to get out of it and called to say I was too busy with my three small children to do anything more. But I was told they really needed volunteers, so I went out there. I hadn’t had horses of my own for a while, and it felt good to be working with horses again.

“Then the first child arrived for her therapeutic riding session, a tiny girl who had been badly injured at birth during delivery and was strapped into a wheelchair from head to toe. The therapist and volunteers carefully put her up on the back of a horse - supported her from both sides - and started walking. All of a sudden, the little girl just sat up. This child who was so incredibly damaged sat up on the back of a horse. It just brought me to tears. I was hooked.”

Riders who can’t stand or walk on their own gain a sense of independence and normalcy on horseback, Edwards adds.

“They see the world from a different perspective on a horse,” she says. “They build their core muscles and are often able to sit a little taller. Riding on a horse levels the playing field.”

Lisa Foster, of Roswell, drives her son, Adam, 25, to Special Equestrians every Saturday morning, and like Parr, riding is a high point of his week.

Adam suffered a stroke as a baby and has been participating in riding therapy for two years.

“I can see such a difference that riding has made in Adam’s strength and posture,” says Foster. “The happiness it gives him to be riding on a horse is hard to describe. It has done wonders for him in so many ways. And the sense of family here, the coming together of people with the same issues and with experts who understand and can help, is comforting for the parents.”

For students who want to test their horseback riding skills in competitions, Special Equestrians of Georgia gives them a chance to participate in several local special needs horse shows at Rolling Hills Saddle Club in Alpharetta. Special Equestrians of Georgia’s riders participate in categories such as walk, trot, canter, and halt and reverse. At the end of the year, the students are recognized at a banquet and are awarded trophies and ribbons.

“This is a very special opportunity to come together as a team and show off the skills our riders have worked on throughout the year,” she says. “SEG brings a team of riders and their horse partners to the shows along with a large cheering section to the competition. It’s such an exciting and rewarding experience for our riders.”

Community outreach is also an important part of Edwards’ mission for Special Equestrans of Georgia. She regularly takes the farm’s mini horses to nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities and hospitals, such as Shepherd Center and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The specially trained minis are housebroken and accustomed to being around patients and medical equipment. They are comfortable with patients trying their hands at grooming them or leading them up and down hallways.

“You have never seen children’s and adults’ faces light up like they do when we bring a mini horse into their rooms,” Edwards says. “The minis have such a sweet nature that makes them perfect for this kind of ‘cheering up’ therapy for people who are confined indoors.”

Special Equestrians of Georgia. 13185 New Providence Road, Alpharetta.. 404-218-2008. Specialequestriansofgeorgia.org

insider Tips

Special Equestrians of Georgia depends on donations to make the therapeutic riding program available to families in financial need. As a result of donations some students are able to ride for free or at a very low cost. The program has an active Go Fund Me campaign.

The riding program welcomes volunteers ages 14 and older, who have no fear of horses. The same volunteer is usually matched with a respective rider each week. Ideal volunteer time is up to three hours per week, but all who are interested are encouraged to contact Special Equestrians of Georgia.

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