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Ride of a lifetime

Meredith C. Carroll
Special to The Aspen Times
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Last week, 10-year-old Natasha Brand stood just outside of an indoor riding arena and helped groom Gunner, a chestnut brown quarter horse. Melissa Wiley, the horse coordinator for WindWalkers Equine Assisted Learning and Therapy Center in Missouri Heights, worked with Natasha to coax Gunner into turning around so she could brush more of his mane.

“What do you think he’s doing?” Wiley asks her. “Look at his ears and keep asking him so he’s paying attention to you.”

Wiley patiently demonstrates ways to touch Gunner and signal to him so that he’ll turn around slowly enough to make Natasha feel safe. “Working with a 1,000-pound animal can be intimidating,” explains Wiley.



Natasha’s mom looks on as she works with Gunner; that fits in with WindWalkers’ family-centered approach that a challenge or disability affects the individual as well as every member of the family.

Natasha is a participant in Horsemanship, a WindWalkers program geared toward kids without an identifiable challenge. Even so, they find WindWalkers “for a reason,” says Molly Robison, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Whether it’s social anxiety or they’re shy, the riders need a more gentle approach to learning as well as repetition and help working on fear issues.”



Gary Bender’s daughter, Alex, 17, has been riding every Saturday at WindWalkers since 2007, except during ski season, during which time she hits the slopes. Alex has Down syndrome and Bender says the riding has made a difference in her core strength, which is a problem for many afflicted with chromosomal disorders, and her confidence.

“On the horse, she’s the boss. In real life, everyone else is the boss,” says Bender. “The horses don’t have filters. They’re the same entity.”

Bender chairs the nonprofit’s board and is developing the idea of a WindWalkers working ranch and residential community for young adults with – and without – developmental and intellectual delays.

“The goal is an inclusive environment,” she says.

Before the community can be realized, however, WindWalkers will need to raise about $1.5 million to buy the Missouri Heights ranch from owner Eugene Chiarelli, who has leased the property to the nonprofit since October. Before then, WindWalkers was located at Cedar Ridge Ranch in Missouri Heights.

WindWalkers’ current setting includes two large fenced pastures, indoor and outdoor riding arenas, a barn, and a shed row with pens. There’s also a small, heated office, but no actual plumbing at the moment, although the staff expects a bathroom will be built eventually.

What it lacks in polished amenities, however, it more than makes up for in gloriously expansive views, with Mount Sopris hard to ignore from any angle. The 15-acre ranch is ideal for a therapeutic riding program: small enough to be manageable, not so big that WindWalkers can’t do everything it wants on the site, Robison says.

Like many nonprofits, WindWalkers faces numerous fiscal challenges in the wake of the recession.

Robison, who joined WindWalkers in 2006, says when she interviewed for the position, she was told the organization had enough money in the bank to operate for a month.

Funds were an issue then, “especially being a young nonprofit going into the worst recession in 50 years,” Robison says. Not much has changed.

“There’s no way around it. Our bills are paid and we have no debt. But we only have enough money to go for the next few months, although we’d like to raise money not for the next quarter, but for the next year.”

WindWalkers’ annual budget is $230,000, which is used to manage a herd of 10 horses, buy their food and pay for their farrier, a specialist in equine hoof care. Many of their vendors discount or donate their services. Tuition and fees make up about 25 percent of its budget, with the rest coming from donations, grants and special events.

Part of the fundraising effort takes place at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 21, with WindWalker’s Galloping into the Future event at The Gathering Church at Carbondale with dinner, live music and “The World’s Most Practical Silent Auction.” Tickets are $40 for adults and $15 for children ages 6-16.

WindWalkers staffs three full-time employees and one who works part time. “You must like dogs, cats and horses, and dust can’t drive you too crazy if you want to work here,” says Robison from behind her desk, a small cat crawling across her papers as the sound of dogs barking outside in the stables rings loudly. WindWalkers also relies heavily on volunteers, who combine to donate more than 1,200 hours of their time to keep the programs running, and running smoothly, each year.

The staff has various qualifications, including one employee who is a North American Riding for the Handicapped Association-certified instructor. There’s also Wiley and a volunteer coordinator.

Of the people who ride at WindWalkers, 80-85 percent have an identifiable challenge, such as autism, Down syndrome, visual impairment or paraplegia. The rest of the riders might have some social or emotional issues, like they get bullied or are bullies themselves, or they have difficulty with anger control, self-esteem or anxiety, for example.

Riding horses teaches anger management, patience and tenderness. “You have to use something other than your hand or foot with a horse if you’re frustrated or angry,” says Robison. “Horses give immediate feedback. We can’t disguise emotion with horses, because they always just know what the rider is feeling. If a rider tries to disguise a feeling, they can’t connect with the horse.”

Valley View Hospital sends teens in their drug and alcohol Youth Recovery Program to WindWalkers.

“Oftentimes [the kids] come in tight and closed and we teach them what the horse is telling them. Kids get excited when horses trust them because it means they are trustworthy people – and not just with horses, but with other people, too.”

Students at Colorado Rocky Mountain School also learn about therapeutic riding – they ride with their eyes covered so they can get a sense of being blind, or with their hands tied behind their back so they can understand what it’s like to have a physical limitation. WindWalkers is most known for the therapeutic successes it’s had with people with physical and genetic challenges and disabilities.

Horseback riding is the activity that most closely mimics hip motion, muscle use and the neurological pathways needed to walk. Equine therapy has been proven to generate rapid and effective physical, behavioral and emotional growth through increased neurological stimulation. One boy with autism and a chromosomal disorder who, when he started at WindWalkers as a toddler, couldn’t take a step even with his walker, is now nearly walking on his own without the leg braces he advanced to, and his hand-eye coordination has also shown vast improvements.

A therapeutic team for one disabled rider might include an instructor, horse handler, primary side walker and secondary side walker. The goal is to move away from the team as quickly as possible, although with some riders it’ll simply never be possible.

Lessons cost as much as $75 each, with about a third of the riders paying the full free. About a third of the riders receive a full scholarship, and another third receives a partial scholarship, although all riders are required to pay at least $10 per session so they have some buy-in. They generally charge on a sliding scale, and while they don’t bill insurance, Robison says some do cover equine therapy sessions.


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