At 10, the Windwalkers family keeps growing
Post Independent Correspondent
To learn more about Windwalkers, to donate or find out about volunteering, visit http://www.windwalkerstrc.org.
When Windwalkers, the Carbondale-based nonprofit that uses horses to help people with disabilities of all kinds, began, it had two clients and one horse.
Now 10 years old, the organization has 45 riders weekly and 11 therapy horses.
“One of the things I love about Windwalkers is that it feels like a family helping any way they can,” said Anne Merz, who has multiple sclerosis and has been riding with Windwalkers for four years. “Support all around, understanding for all things.”
Executive Director Gabrielle Greeves concurred.
“It’s about family, it’s about healing,” she said.
Windwalkers Equine Assisted Learning and Therapeutic Center is not only focused on helping clients, but also their families.
The program uses the clients’ connection with the horses to make connections among family members stronger while also helping clients to build confidence and independence.
“Clients aren’t only in the saddle, they also do groundwork,” Greeves said. “We have psychotherapists and mental health professionals who come up here to work with our clients and horse handlers.”
A session with Windwalkers varies with every client. Sessions in the Missouri Heights arena usually include various props set up for the client to traverse with the horse under constant supervision and assistance by an instructor and/or a team of volunteers.
The props used in the arena are multi-colored, decorated with flowers and things usually seen outside a riding arena.
“It triggers people to see things, assimilate to things they would normally see outside,” Greeves said. “That gives them a sense of self-independence, confidence. They get more comfortable, the more they see the same things.”
The practice of leading the horse and using signals to indicate where they want to go also helps clients build confidence and a sense of control. They learn to communicate their needs much better.
“We’re really about when people smile at the end of the day, too,” Greeves said. The smiles she sees at the end of each session are indicators that the client is enjoying the program and benefiting immensely, just as planned.
“It’s our biggest measure of success,” she said.
RANGE OF CLIENTS
Windwalkers works with a wide variety of people, from people with physical disabilities to at-risk teens.
“We work with the 2- to 72-year-old,” Greeves said, smiling herself.
Toby, a client who is now 28, has been with Windwalkers for four years now. A past horse rider, she had to give up riding at the age of 12 when she began to have seizures and developmental problems.
Now, Toby rides with great confidence and enthusiasm every Tuesday. Toby’s seizures are infrequent now, and she lives independently with her service dog, Jangles.
A typical session for her includes horse Skippy, colorful props to navigate and casual talks with her instructor, Beth Gusick.
“It’s like taking talk therapy away from the couch,” Greeves noted, gesturing toward Toby, who was having Skippy weave through flowered cones. “Most clients don’t look at this like therapy. Would you? They come up here to enjoy a sport that is also beneficial to them.”
Many wonder why horses are used for therapy. According to the Windwalkers website, “Horses are prey animals, and their life depends on the awareness of their environment. This sensitivity to nonverbal stimuli, or ‘horse sense,’ becomes useful to us as therapists and specialists in that it gives us valuable information about the client that we might not have learned through verbal communication.”
Greeves added that horses are able to mirror the emotion of their riders, indicating what is going on.
“I feel a bond with the horse” client Merz said. “There is a psyche that flows between us. She/he feels my needs and holds me together, upright. I feel independent, free in the world around me.”
The connection between client and horse can be immensely strong. Horses are known for their immediate responses to certain situations, always providing emotional support that helps not only the instructors understand but helps the clients build relationships with horse and humans alike.
Horses also provide physical therapy instead of just physiological.
“The horse’s natural gait gives someone who has a physical disability the sensation of walking on their own two legs,” said Greeves, who has also used the horses for physical therapy before.
Merz added, “Windwalkers has been one of the most beneficial physical therapy experiences I do. I have MS and need to strengthen various muscle groups of my body to help me walk with some semblance of balance. Riding at Windwalkers strengthens all my core muscles as well as my inner thighs. It takes a lot of strength to stay upright.”
Windwalkers has a slew of goals and projects planned in the hopes of bringing more help into the Roaring Fork Valley.
“Our plans include an expansion and increase on services, expansion of staff and herd, who carry the program, literally, and increased lease on land,” Greeves said. She said that the organization hopes to touch the lives of more than 700 people annually by 2016.
Windwalkers is in talks to create new programs for people such as seniors and veterans and early learning classes for “little buckaroos.”
To help bring these plans into reality and in celebration of the 10-year anniversary, Windwalkers has announced a “Ten for Ten Campaign.”
“We’re looking for 10 donors in each of our membership categories and asking them to write checks and fill in our donation slots from $100 to $10,000,” Greeves said.
“There’s a lot going into making the whole program successful and possible. Individual campaigns like the Ten for Ten Campaign are one of many ways of making sure Windwalkers stays around for a long time.”
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