Spokane Journal of Business

Equine center here offers therapy for disabled, veterans

Program aspires to move and purchase larger site to double rider capacity

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-—Staff photo by Katie Ross
Volunteers work with riders during a class at Free Rein Therapeutic Riding in southwest Spokane. The facility seeks to harness the healing power of horses.

Free Rein Therapeutic Riding, a horseback riding facility in southwest Spokane, is helping to expand the lives of people with disabilities and injuries through the healing power of horses.

Free Rein is a therapeutic horseback riding program that assists those with a variety of disabilities or injuries to improve cognition, balance, strength, and confidence. The classes involve riders being led by a volunteer—and sometimes riding on their own—following directions from an instructor, and performing tasks, such as turning the horse in a circle or toward a certain direction, making arm circles or answering questions while riding. Each class is tailored to a rider's specific needs.

"We adapt our teaching and equipment to our riders, grouped roughly by age and ability," says Sandy Jones, founder and director of the organization.

The 501(c)3 nonprofit organization also is certified as a premier riding center through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, of Denver, Colo. To attain that certification, it had to pass rigorous standards and an on-site inspection by PATH, Jones says, and then it received the five-year premier certification in 2011.

"Only about 300 of 900 riding centers that apply are accredited," Jones says. "It's a good guidance and set of standards for our program."

All of the volunteer instructors at Free Rein also are certified through PATH, which is part of the premier accreditation, Jones says.

Free Rein also has a program funded by a PATH International grant for injured veterans through the Wounded Warrior Project. The military program teaches basic horsemanship and riding for eight weeks and doesn't charge tuition. Right now, the program is offered only through the Wounded Warrior Project, but Jones hopes to someday get enough funding to offer it free of charge to all military personnel.

Jones founded Free Rein in 2008, after earning her physical therapy assistant and hippotherapy certifications in the late 1990s. Jones was also a volunteer at a therapeutic riding center in Woodinville, Wash., for 11 years before moving to Spokane in 2002.

Free Rein leases 5 acres of land from the Westar Ranch, at 8118 S. Ramona, for its arena, stables, office building, and pastures. It accepts riders ages four and up. As long as those seeking to participate in the program don't have a medical condition that prohibits them from riding and are under a 190-pound weight limit, they are welcome, Jones says. The benefits of therapeutic riding, she contends, are endless.

"Physically, this is an activity that is a great core strengthener and it improves balance and coordination," she says. "Cognitively, it's a very motivating setting for people to work on following directions, self-esteem, and confidence. With autism disorders in particular, there is something very calming about it. It opens up their ability to process and allows them to follow directions easier."

Julie Western, of Spokane, has a teenage son named Clay who is autistic and rides once a week with Free Rein. He looks forward to his classes so much, Western says, that he always runs to the car when it's time to go to class. Western says the class has helped Clay tremendously with his self-confidence.

"He seems like his own person out there," Western says. "It's his thing, his own. He's gaining small physical things and independence that we take for granted."

Western says she has seen the program also help Clay with following multistep directions.

"It's very different from asking him to do the same things outside the arena," she says. "They start with baby steps and build them up."

Jones agrees, saying, "They're controlling a big, 1,000-pound animal out there. There's something empowering about that. It's also a great environment to work on appropriate behaviors, because the horses are so responsive to what's appropriate or not."

Each class has three or four riders, an instructor, horse walkers, and side walkers if needed; students require one to three volunteers each. Jones says about one-third of the riders Free Rein serves have some form of autism, one-third have cerebral palsy, and the other third have disorders such as Down syndrome, developmental delays, brain injuries or tumors, and degenerative disorders.

Free Rein has two full-time staff members, one full-time volunteer coordinator, four certified volunteer instructors, and more than 130 general volunteers, Jones says.

"We give volunteers a short training and then get them straight into classes," she says. "We are always recruiting."

As of now, Free Rein has 65 riders in its program, and Jones says that is about its maximum capacity. The goal is to double that number eventually, Jones says. There are seven active horses, six of which are "care-leased" from owners, and one that was fully donated to the program by its owner. Care-leased means that the owners loan the horses for the program's use, and in return, Free Rein takes over the general care of the horse.

"Then if a horse doesn't work out, it has a home to go back to," Jones says. "Our horses come from a variety of backgrounds, but we need horses with very calm temperaments."

Tuition from the classes covers about a third of the organization's operating costs, Jones says. The rest of its funding comes from fundraising and donations. Free Rein offers scholarships to students who can't afford the average tuition cost of $35 per class, Jones says. However, it doesn't accept insurance because its programs aren't medically-based. Its annual budget is roughly $160,000, she says.

Free Rein offers three class sessions a year in the spring, summer, and fall. The spring and fall sessions are 11 or 12 weeks, and the summer session is eight weeks. This summer, it also offered a day camp for riders, which Jones says is something the organization will continue in the future. The classes shut down around mid-December and begin again after Presidents Day weekend in mid-February.

The organization holds a number of fundraising events throughout the year, Jones says. The biggest is its annual barn dance, which raised over $34,000 last year. Other campaigns include Paint the Pony and sponsor-a-horse programs.

For the future, Jones hopes to find and purchase a new home for the program with space to add more horses and instructors so it can serve more riders. Jones' goal, she says, is to get to 120 riders. Jones is also looking to start a medical hippotherapy program in addition to the therapeutic program. This would involve medical professionals, such as physical therapists and speech therapists, coming out and using the horse as a therapy tool, Jones says. The hippotherapy program would be able to accept insurance, she also says.

Katie Ross
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Reporter Katie Ross covers manufacturing, hospitality, and government at the Journal of Business. An outdoor enthusiast and snowboard fanatic, Katie is a recent graduate of Gonzaga University.  

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