Positive Strides Therapeutic Riding Center was founded 40 years ago by Sandy King and Jessie Browne to combine their passions for horses and helping people. It was known as Talbot Special Riders for many years and served a small group of riders with special needs in the Talbot County area. As the need for equine-assisted activities and therapies grew, the organization grew to serve adults and children in Caroline, Dorchester, Queen Anne’s and Talbot counties.
From autism and addiction recovery to PTSD and cerebral palsy, equine therapy can play a powerful role in giving a person the confidence and skills they need to live a fulfilling life. Positive Strides’ CATCH Riders program helps youth at risk and adults recovering from family violence and sexual abuse. Just brushing and interacting with a horse can calm a person with dementia or help someone with depression.
In 2019, the organization rebranded itself to Positive Strides to reinforce the confidence, self-esteem and optimism that its riders achieve through its therapeutic horse programs.
“Our riders are wonderful and inspire us each and every day.” says co-founder Sandy King. “They are so proud of themselves, as they should be, and their smiles say it all.”
According to Sandy, riding can help strengthen muscles in the rider’s body associated with speech. Several children who were told they would never speak have spoken their very first words while riding.
“During our 2021 Fall Session, the therapist of one of our new riders reported that he constantly talks about the time he spends riding,” says Kim Hopkins Thomas, executive director. “According to her, he is normally very shy and reserved in interactions with others. But as soon as he arrives on the farm, he has a huge smile on his face! He loves telling his horse to ‘walk on’ and ‘whoa.’ He is making great strides at being able to ride more independently.”
Setting goals with individual riders and working toward achieving them are part of each program. A common goal is to help riders begin to ride independently for an appropriate amount of time based on their abilities. It helps improve their balance, self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
“I have been taking my grandson to Positive Strides since January 2018,” says the grandfather of a rider. “He has had problems most of his life. He has been in quite a few programs that the State has tried, and most have failed, leaving him feeling he can’t do anything right and that he is a failure in life. Each week at Positive Strides, he seems to be improving in his riding habits and his overall attitude towards life. I have asked him about his riding and how it makes him feel. He told me that when he is riding, it makes him feel free and in control of his emotions. His teachers and all of the volunteers treat him as though he is important, and he feels that most vividly.”
Positive Strides couldn’t operate without the help of its volunteers. “Our volunteers are the backbone of Positive Strides,” says Sandy. “They are dedicated, enthusiastic and believe in our mission.” It can take up to three volunteers per rider, one to lead the horse and two to walk on each side of the rider. Sessions are conducted for 32 weeks over the winter, spring, summer and fall seasons.
Like many other organizations, COVID-19 impacted operations and took a toll on the nonprofit’s finances. “We had to suspend all services and fundraising for over a year yet continued to provide top notch care to our seven therapeutic horses and ponies,” says Kim. After training volunteers on COVID protocols and putting in place additional safety and health practices, Positive Strides resumed therapeutic riding sessions in 2021 and expects to be back to full capacity in 2022. In fact, there are plans to expand its stables and add two more horses to its programs to support future growth.
One new area that has taken off has been the Time to Ride program for at-risk youth. Created by the American Horse Council, Time to Ride is an after-school program that gets students out of the classroom and into the farm environment. Positive Strides is a certified Time to Ride facility.
“In a recent pilot program, we hosted nine students from Dorchester County Public Schools for six weeks,” says LeeAnn Hutchison, program instructor. “The program focuses on instructional education, hands-on education, and information on careers in the equine industry. It combines history, art and science education with riding horses to provide fun and engaging activities in an outdoor setting. The kids loved it which makes us want to expand and reach more of them.”
As a nonprofit, donations are essential to the success of its programs. “We are grateful to our supporters who have made it possible for us to serve the Mid Shore for the last 40 years,” says Sandy. “Thank you with all my heart for being a part of the extraordinary, winning Positive Strides team.”
While much has changed in the last 40 years, Positive Strides continues to work hard to create a pathway to healing for children and adults in our community. That will never change. For more information, visit www.positivestridescenter.org.