KART Connects Horses and Humans

This column in Attraction, by Amelia Blades Steward, visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore or are one of the organizations giving back in unique ways to better our world. She has been a freelance writer in our community for over 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.

The connection between horses and humans goes beyond riding. Kent Association of Riding Therapy, Inc. (KART) at Worthmore Equestrian Center in Worton was founded in 1984 to help children and adults with special needs enhance their social and developmental growth through interacting with horses. KART uses a multi-faceted program involving therapeutic horseback riding, grooming and caring for the horse, and comprehensive classroom instruction to help enhance the lives of those who seek out its services.

“It’s not always just about riding the horses,” explains KART’s Executive Director Theresa Snyder. “We do a lot of horse-related activities with our participants.”

One of KART’s students rides with the help of side walkers.

KART is a Premier Accredited Center of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH, Int.). Through PATH-certified instructors, who along with volunteers and special horses, KART has been able to change an individual’s life through an increase in self-esteem, confidence, coordination and balance, focus, and physical improvements.

“Typical special needs within KART’s participants include autism, brain injuries, abuse or trauma, at-risk youth, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, developmental delays, physical and emotional disabilities, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, and hearing, speech, language impairments,” she adds.

KART’s programs include its school program, which includes groups of students from six Kent County Public Schools who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and come once a week during school hours for eight weeks in the fall and spring. This program is offered to students in Galena Elementary School, Garnett Elementary School, Chestertown Christian Academy, and Kent County Middle and High Schools. Sessions average 16 to 18 riders a week and are offered at no cost to the schools or families.

KART also offers an eight-week session in the summer through Easterseals Camp Fairlee, which helps students who often have greater physical limitations. In addition to riding, campers have the opportunity to pet, groom, and bond with special therapeutic horses. Participants in the camp can range in age from seven to 80 years of age.

A KART student walks a horse, which is a form of equine therapy.

According to Theresa, KART also reaches out to special groups in the community throughout the year. This includes Horizons Kent and Queen Anne’s that offers summer learning programs designed to provide academic support and meaningful enrichment to under-resourced elementary and middle school children. Students participated in riding, barn management, and horse activities, providing an opportunity for an introduction to the world of horses for many children who have not interacted with horses previously. The program also reaches out to seniors at Heron Point of Chestertown who participated in barn management activities and reminisced about their times with horses during their childhood.

“We are trying to identify new audiences to do different things with the program,” Theresa states.

Working with horses can have a major physical and emotional impact on people with a wide variety of issues and disabilities. KART is unique in the fact that the results, outcomes, and impacts of therapeutic horseback riding may not be seen for months or even years.

The connection between horses and humans is therapeutic in general due to interactions that are non-judgmental and unconditional. Horses provide immediate non-verbal responses and behaviors that help people with healing, whether it be physical or emotional. Physical benefits include improved posture control and balance, increased muscle tone and strength, greater range of motion, decreased spasticity, improved hand-eye coordination, and reduction of abnormal movement patterns.

According to Theresa, “A horse moves in three ways – front to back, side to side, and up and down. When children feel this movement, it is often calming to them.”

“For wheelchair-bound participants who can barely move, the motivation is often to loosen up their hips, arms, and legs while sitting in the saddle. With the support of two or three volunteers, they can get on a horse. Nonverbal participants still interact with the horse and some even come up with the inner strength to try to say simple words such as ‘walk-on’ and ‘whoa.’ These are clear examples of the positive impact KART provides,” she adds.

Cognitive benefits include the development of learned skills, tactile awareness and sensory integration, improved application of direction, and greater skill at sequencing, patterning, and motor planning. Social benefits include improved social skills and cooperation, increased independence, increased self-control, and greater self-confidence.

Marco Belperio, one of two certified riding instructors at KART who are certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl), comments, “Riding this 1,000-pound animal gives them a sense of empowerment. They learn coordination and they learn the difference between left and right. They learn how to move and coordinate their own body with the body movement of the horse. They discover that these animals will follow what they ask.”

Barn management supplements and reinforces the riding portion of the program, offering a more comprehensive approach to equestrian education. Students learn how to groom and care for a horse, how to clean stalls, polish saddles, and perform other “barn chores” under the supervision of the Stable Management Instructor.

In the classroom, instructors reinforce lessons learned in the ring and the stable by teaching the riders such things as the names for parts of the horse, colors, and breeds of horses, and types of saddles and bridles. Sometimes they have an art project related to horses.

“They feel a bond with the animal no matter what they do with it, whether riding on the horse, walking the horse, or caring for the horse. I think it does help with creating empathy and affects how they relate to people and other animals. There is no judgment from the horse,” Theresa adds.

Volunteers are the backbone of KART’s program. Volunteers groom and tack the horses, lead the horses in the lessons, sidewalk next to the riders for safety, encourage the riders, fit riders with helmets, and assist in the classroom activities that support the riding lesson. To volunteer for KART, call 410-870-5596 or email kentridingtherapy@gmail.com.

KART’s expenses run more than $80K per year to train and maintain the horses, pay certified instructors, and purchase special safety equipment for the riders, including helmets, harnesses, customized ramps, and special lifts to help those in wheelchairs. KART is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization. For further information or to donate, visit kentridingtherapy.org.

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