LANDENBERG — On any given day, at a modest barn in Landenberg, nestled in a valley surrounded by gently rolling hills, the parents of special needs children will tell you that big miracles are occurring.
A child enters the barn with the assistance of a walker, slowly making his way down the aisle past stalls where horses nicker a welcome. His eyes brighten as he works to form the horse’s name, Noodles. The docile, retired ‘paint’ who looks like he stepped out of a scene from a Western will become the boy’s therapist. Patient. Free of judgement. Ready, for the next hour, to become the friend and steady mount that releases the burdens of a young life with limbs that struggle to work the way they should and muscles that quickly fatigue.
Here, at the non-profit therapeutic riding program, Reins of Life, parents are seeing their children whose bodies have been ravaged by Cerebral Palsy taking their first steps. Some Autistic children and young adults are just learning to speak or even make eye contact with the volunteers
who help them to mount and walk steadily alongside them. Others facing a range of disabilities are developing essential core strength as they stretch forward to pet the horses they have learned to ride.
While therapeutic riding programs like Reins of Life are not new, their value and need may be underestimated, says founder and director Judy Hendrickson, who started the non-profit 29 years ago.
Reins of Life’s annual fundraiser, The Mane Event gala, will be held at Deerfield Country Club on Saturday, Nov. 19 from 6 to 10 p.m. Tickets can be obtained by emailing Judy Hendrickson at firstname.lastname@example.org. As a non-profit, the program relies on proceeds from the gala to operate and to offer services to families in need.
Parents like Sarah McGrath of Oxford say the program is essential in southern Chester County. She has seen tremendous growth in her four-year-old son, Asher, who was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at the age of two.
“Asher’s days are filled with ‘have to do’ tasks in his therapies,” McGrath said. “This is the one thing that is pure enjoyment. He gets to come ride his buddy and to pet him, and even something simple like the act of stretching to stroke the horse is hugely beneficial for him. It’s stretching, strengthening, core strength, and muscle growth. There are things that horses can do that typical therapy can’t,” she said. “Every time I get Asher off the horse, his legs have more flexibility and mobility. I can actually wrap his legs around me now to hold him on my side. It’s truly incredible.”
Reins of Life offers a unique sibling riding program which encourages typically developed siblings to also attend sessions and to ride. The organization’s “special equestrians” share this unique experience with their siblings, with the goal of creating a greater nurturing experience together, giving them something they can share.
As a non-profit offering about 70 rides a month, the program provides an essential service to a wide age range of riders.
“Our special equestrians have ranged in age from 2 to 72,” said Hendrickson, who founded Reins of Life after volunteering in another program more than 30 years ago. She holds a degree in elementary education, equine science, and has specialized certification in equine assisted therapy.
Hendrickson’s four horses are donated retirees whose temperaments are uniquely suited to this kind of work.
“Our horses are the embodiment of hope and the opportunity for freedom in an otherwise confined world of disability,” Hendrickson said. “They have a unique gift to transform confinement into ability, and isolation into community. Our horses bond with people in ways that change their lives forever.”
Several Reins of Life riders, like Sarah Owocki’s four-year-old daughter, are Autistic riders who find a positive connection with animals.
“Like many kids on the spectrum she just loves animals,” said Owocki. “We’re not able to have horses, so this is a chance to be around a bigger animal and actually be able to ride it. She is verbal but she doesn’t use language the way other children do. Now she is actually able to tell the horse to ‘walk on’ and that is really big for her.”
One of Owocki’s daughter’s favorite toys at home is her plastic horse the family has named, “Little Chrissie” after the Halflinger at the barn, named Chrissie, that she rides.
“You see your child grow through their relationships with these horses and the staff,” she said.
For 24-year-old Bryce Rubin, of Lincoln University, horses have brought a sense of peaceful calm and predictability that is sometimes difficult to find.
“Bryce is autistic,” said his mother, Michelle Rubin. “The Reins of Life staff and volunteers have become friends to him, which is invaluable because he doesn’t make friends easily. He’s been riding for years, and we can’t imagine his life without this program.”
For Robin Jadick of Newark, Reins of Life has offered her 11-year-old daughter, Riley, a chance to live out a dream. Riley was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 6 and faced muscle deterioration after years of aggressive treatment.
“She loves being around the horses – grooming them, riding them – and for this one block of time she’s separated from the stress of everything else,” Jadick says. “I can see how happy she is and how good she feels about herself when she’s finished.
“There are so many layers to it, and the physical work that she does while she’s there just doesn’t feel like real work. It’s been extremely helpful for Riley in a multitude of ways.”
For more information, visit www.reinsoflife.com or call 610-274-3300.