CORRALES – Matthew Fehr, arms stretched out at shoulder level, sits atop the broad back of Kirby Jack, his legs clamped about the big bay’s stout frame, as the horse walks at a leisurely pace, counter-clockwise, around the arena.
“Remember to breathe, Matthew,” Tasha Books said. “Remember to come down into your crouching animal position. As you swing, your head needs to come way down. Pick a side of Kirby’s head and put your check down close to him.”
Matthew, who turned 9 on this recent Sunday, is taking his eighth vaulting lesson at Cloud Dancers Therapeutic Horsemanship. Books is Cloud Dancers’ vaulting instructor.
Basically, vaulting is doing gymnastic maneuvers on the back of a horse that is moving in a circle and is controlled by a lunge line. Cloud Dancers, started in 1982, is a nonprofit horsemanship program designed for people with a wide range of disabilities – emotional, social, learning and physical.
The program’s aim is to teach independence by helping people acquire skills they can use to overcome the barriers they encounter in everyday life. Sometimes these skills are physical, but often the strengths developed go deeper than muscle and bone.
“The method here is teaching horsemanship skills,” Books said. “But the goal is teaching life skills. We don’t expect everyone to become a master horseman.”
In vaulting, there are no reins and no stirrups. The rider has no control of the horse.
“It is challenging in terms of balance and core strength,” Books said.
Vaulting also instills self-confidence, something Cloud Dancers’ clients often don’t have a great deal of because of their disabilities.
Matthew’s challenges are attention deficit disorder and dyslexia. On this day, he is going to try to stand up on Kirby Jack’s back, a feat that requires concentration and courage as well as physical agility.
Swinging his head forward and his legs backward, he gets to a kneeling position on the horse’s back.
“OK, Matthew, that is what it feels like when you are standing – only higher,” Books said. “Push into your knees.”
Slowly, tremulously, with Books and a volunteer on either side of the horse holding his ankles, Matthew, arms stretched out, gaze fixed forward, a tentative smile on his face, comes to a standing position on Kirby Jack’s back.
No big deal for Kirby Jack, but pretty cool for Matthew.
Being successful at something
All the while, Katy Fehr, Matthew’s mom, has been watching from nearby.
“It’s such a great confidence builder,” Fehr said. “Being able to come here and be successful at something when other things have been so hard.”
Fehr said that because of his disabilities, Matthew, a third-grader at Albuquerque’s Coral Community Charter School, is behind in school and has difficulty focusing. But there have been improvements since he started the vaulting lessons.
“I asked his teacher if she had noticed any difference, and she said he is rocking it in math,” Fehr said. “She also noticed he can stay focused a little longer than he used to.”
Still, the best part about this is that Matthew likes being on a horse – even if the standing up part makes him nervous.
“I’m just teaching Matthew how to vault,” Books said. “We all know that self-confidence, balance and strength are affected. But I don’t believe Matthew is thinking, ‘This is really going to help me with my math.’ I don’t think there are any of us who would not benefit from riding a horse.”
Cloud Dancers works out of stables in a quiet, peaceful area in north Corrales. Vaulting is new to the program, having been added just more than a year ago. But from the start, Cloud Dancers, a member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), has offered regular therapeutic riding lessons in which participants keep their seat in the saddle and, if able, control their horses with reins.
Karen Molony teaches the riding lessons. She started with Cloud Dancers as a volunteer in 2004, was certified as an instructor in 2006 and is now lead instructor and barn manager.
Books, the vaulting instructor, has been with Cloud Dancers since 2014. But she got involved in therapeutic horsemanship in California in 2006 – as a student. Books was born with a partially developed left arm with limited function, a fact that gives her a valuable perspective when working with Cloud Dancer clients.
“Independence and supporting myself are very important to me,” she said. “I was very driven, growing up with the arm and always wanting to do what everyone else was doing. When I was young, the teachers I had for physical activities always felt they were accommodating me but they never had expectations. I don’t want to be the kind of instructor who babies people. I’d want an instructor who understands me and pushes me.”
Molony and Books stress that they are not medical professionals.
“We are licensed to teach horsemanship skills to people with disabilities,” Molony said. “We can conceivably provide services for a wide range of disabilities.”
There are 26 participants in the program now. Cloud Dancers accepts clients from age 5 to adult with disabilities that include autism, cerebral palsy, post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, Down syndrome, spina bifida, hearing loss, muscular sclerosis, stroke and more. Prior riding experience is not necessary.
Clients are charged for their lessons – private sessions are $60 an hour and $40 for 30 minutes, for example – but those fees don’t cover the program’s expenses. Molony said donations, fundraisers and grants make up the difference. In fact the program pretty much runs on donations and volunteers. Molony and Books are the only paid staffers.
“We are a very volunteer-driven organization,” Molony said. “We have up to three volunteers per client. At some lessons, it is conceivable that we could have 12 volunteers in addition to an instructor.” Molony said 65 volunteers contribute a total of 300 hours a month to the program.
The volunteers help saddle the horses, control the horses on lunge lines, walk close by the horses to steady riders or catch them, if necessary. Volunteers unsaddle and brush down the horses and pretty much do anything that needs doing.
And the horses in the program are sometimes donated.
Horses with go
None of Cloud Dancers’ five horses are young, but none are ready to retire either.
Molony and Books said the program wants horses that are sound at all three gaits, tolerant, easy to handle and have some go.
Kirby Jack, 18 to 20 years old, part Clydesdale and part quarter horse, is a gelding, the only male in the Cloud Dancers string.
Other Cloud Dancers horses are –
Birdie, brown, 17-year-old thoroughbred, a former race and show horse.
Breeze, chestnut, mid-20s, Anglo/Arab.
Risa, 15 or so, Palomino/Paint.
Lady J, gray, 23 or so, quarter horse, former reining champion.
“Lady J is such a communicator,” said Cheryl Dymond, 59, a Cloud Dancers client. “She and I are totally connected. I don’t even have to say whoa to get her to stop. I just have to lean back in the saddle.”
Nearly 21 years ago, Dymond suffered a stroke that caused paralysis on her left side. She first started with Cloud Dancers in 2003 or 2004 and now takes half-hour riding lessons twice a week.
“A physical therapist friend told me that riding horses was good for you physically as well as emotionally,” Dymond said. “The way a horse’s back moves retrains your pelvis, spine and nervous system to the way a normal human walks. I noticed the first summer that I was walking better.”
Even so, Dymond still needs a cane and a brace to walk.
“But riding keeps me as independent as possible, which is why I keep doing it,” she said. “It’s not like I’m going to be vaulting, or showing or racing horses.”
She said making herself get dressed and driving to the stables is therapeutic in itself.
“Meeting all the volunteers broadens my horizons,” Dymond said. “Just being able to look a far distance here is good. At home, I’m usually in front of the laptop.”
Esmeralda “Esme” Marquez-Chavez, 9, a Cloud Dancers vaulting student, is a Kirby Jack fan.
“I like Kirby Jack because he will let us do things,” Esme said.
And, Esme, who has been a part of the vaulting program from its start, is not afraid to do things.
Standing up on Kirby Jack. No problem.
Kneeling on one knee, with right arm pointed forward and left leg pointed back. Can do.
Draping herself over Kirby Jack’s back, one leg pointed up, the other bent down. Sure thing.
“Esme was hiding behind her parents when she first came out here,” Books said. “This young lady went from hardly talking to me to standing up on a horse for me.”
Esme’s challenge is sensory integration disorder, also known as sensory processing disorder. Noises can cause her anxiety and frustration. Sometimes her clothes make her feel as if bugs are crawling on her skin.
But none of that was apparent at the Cloud Dancers lesson. She sure wasn’t afraid to talk about her preference for vaulting over riding lessons.
“It’s a little more free,” she said. “Instead of putting my feet in the stirrups and having to control the horse, I can focus on what I’m doing – standing, kneeling.”
Esme’s mom, Katy Chavez, said an occupational therapist suggested therapeutic horseback riding as a way to help with anxiety issues. Esme was in Cloud Dancers’ riding program for about three years before she switched to vaulting.
“Once she started (at Cloud Dancers), she gained a ton of confidence,” Chavez said. “Both her anxiety and frustration levels went way down.”
Both Esme and her mom were pleased with this particular day’s lesson.
“I liked it a lot because I got to do my routine, and I got on the horse without worrying I was going to fall off,” Esme said. “I feel like I was trying a lot harder than I usually do.”
Chavez agreed that Esme was very much on point in her lesson, but there was something else she appreciated more.
“It’s great when they get off the horse and they are smiling more than at the beginning of the lesson,” she said.