Horses Heal and Teach Life Skills

Equestrian program touches everyone involved.

SPIRIT Open Equestrian Program, Inc. celebrated the achievements of its students during the organization's public presentation, "Ride for SPIRIT," held Saturday, Nov. 9 at Frying Pan Farm Park Equestrian Center in Herndon. During the event, SPIRIT's therapeutic riding participants from across Fairfax County and beyond, ages five through adult, demonstrated how horseback riding provided a fun experience that improved their balance, muscle tone, motor skills, self-confidence and more. SPIRIT is a nonjudgmental zone, with collaboration between trained professionals, volunteers, clients and the local government.

While riders and their families remain the primary beneficiaries of SPIRIT's program, one that promoted inclusion and urban horsemanship for the healing and improvement of life skills, SPIRIT’s program also touched volunteers, staff and board members. It also gave one U.S. Army veteran "purpose."

Rider Nicole Springer, 19, of Sterling participated in the SPIRIT Therapeutic Riding Program since she was nine years old. According to her mother, Laura-Jeanne, Nicole was born with Low Muscle Tone. When they first enrolled Nicole in the program, SPIRIT staff and volunteers engaged her daughter in playful exercises while 'in-saddle' on the horse to help further develop the child's core strength and balance. Springer recalled how Nicole stretched, reaching to touch the horse's ears and hindquarters and balanced, turning 360 degrees in the saddle thinking it all fun and games. "She went from needing two side walkers (volunteers who spotted her while she rode) and a special type of saddle for support, to being an independent rider. “Nicole’s confidence spills over," said Springer.

FOR NICOLE, the benefits proved to be more than physical and emotional. "I’ve made so many friends here; it’s a family affair," she said. "I come once a week, on Tuesdays. I love to trot and ride. I also like to groom and walk the horses. When I’m trotting and it just feels right, I think to myself, I’m doing it."

Rider Aaron Ho, 5, of Fairfax was one of the youngest and newest participants in the program. His mother, Shirley peacefully watched from the stands as Naomi Jacobs, 11, of Fairfax, Sagarika Kagicha, 13, of Fairfax and Elena Brunori of Vienna walked beside her son and led his horse. Reins in hand, Aaron focused and listened attentively to his walkers. He followed their position commands to lean forward and sit up.

"We love it here. Aaron looks forward to it every week. He’s autistic and this program has really helped him with his speech. The volunteers talk to him while he’s on the horse and conversation goes back and forth. He’s able to focus and follow directions. We moved here from New Mexico this summer and did a program there. I searched online and found this program through Fairfax County Parktakes. My goal is to promote his social and communication skills. As long as he enjoys it, we will keep signing up. The staff and volunteers have such passion," said Ho.

For Noah Cullinan, 9, of Fairfax, a two-year veteran of the program, his mother Nancy said she saw her son's confidence "shine through when riding the horses." According to Cullinan, therapeutic riding helped to further develop Noah's core muscles, particularly beneficial since he has Downs Syndrome.

Volunteers and board members also received benefits from their service, unexpected ones. Volunteer/Assistant Meagan Hosker, 16, of Reston worked the ring with other volunteers and staff during the presentation. Afterward, Hosker shared she decided to join the organization given she had eight years riding experience under her belt and she wanted to put it to good use. "I was an introvert," Hosker said. "But being around these amazing children and adults opened a new and happier view for me," she said.

In an interview after the event, Barry Dresdner of Herndon, Board Vice President of SPIRIT Open Equestrian Program said, "The main thing I want to say is that when I first met Dada (Davorka Suvak, Executive Director of SPIRIT) and heard her speak so passionately about SPIRIT, I fell in love with the program, and I wanted to do more to help out...The community is extremely fortunate to have SPIRIT."

While other riders, their family members and volunteers of the SPIRIT Open Equestrian Program, echoed with similar comments, for one U.S. Army veteran, Rob Mennell of Arlington, SPIRIT changed his life. Mennell currently serves as Board President of SPIRIT Open Equestrian Program, Inc.

"Personally, SPIRIT gives me purpose. After I left the military and stopped deploying overseas, I didn’t have a cause that made me feel like I was contributing to something worthwhile. I also had trouble relating to others. After working in combat environments... I couldn’t fathom why people got upset over seemingly trivial things and weren’t grateful for what they had," said Mennell.

"When I came to SPIRIT about three years ago, I saw a group of people dedicated solely to helping others (two-legged or four - our horses are rescues). This tight-knit community of volunteers gave me the team-based environment I missed, the opportunity to do physical labor, and most of all, the ability to help people in ways that were instantly recognizable. Our kids light up when they see their horses, and they become so independent and confident in a matter of weeks. Everyone who shows up to SPIRIT — riders, families, volunteers and even our horses — seem to leave with more than they came with. Sorry to ramble on, this is a huge part of my life, and I’m so proud of our team and our community," said Mennell.

SPIRIT is a registered 501(c) (3) organization, EIN #20-849-2941. According to SPIRIT, if interested in Therapeutic Riding or Equine Assisted Learning/Beginner Classes, register with Fairfax County Park Authority; contact Frying Pan Farm Park at 703-437-9101. If a youth in the FCPS system would benefit from the SPIRIT program, contact the case manager; for all other programs or information visit spiritinfo@spiritequestrian.org.

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