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MVTH horse riders celebrate improved skills

The horses and riders in the ring at Mississippi Valley Therapeutic Horsemanship’s 10th Annual Horse Show celebrated their improved skills on May 5. Show day gave riders with disabilities the opportunity to shine after working hard at equine assisted therapy, a program that promotes exercise, strength and the chance to bond with gentle horses.

The show’s birthday party theme heightened the already happy mood for riders, instructors, volunteers and even horses, who wore party hats. Ordinary rituals like eating birthday cake were combined with festive classes that followed the theme.

With safety a number one issue, the day began with volunteers meeting to outline the schedule, and prepare for a smooth program. Important aspects like holding applause for the riders until the end of a class and keeping conversations to a minimum were emphasized.

The two-hour program, which challenged 14 riders’ skills, included four classes, “Going to the Party,” “Ring Toss,” “Pin the Tail” and “Reverse Limbo.” Show horses participating were Ace, Bre, CJ, Ranger, Rocky and Rose.

MVTH is a Premier Accredited Center under the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International (PATH). Staff members, including Varina Luttrull, program director, Leigh Anne Statler, lead instructor, and Tami Tyler, instructor, are PATH certified. All three instructors, about 30 volunteers and MVTH’s executive director, Jodie Brunke participated at show day.

Betsy Rigdon, MVTH consultant and former instructor, was one of the program emcees. She described the annual horse show for riders with disabilities as “a time for them to shine. It’s like their soccer game. One of the things that happens to almost everyone on this day is they are focused. They love the competition. The first year we had this, we were so worried. Their enthusiasm outweighed the risk. This is a big deal for riders’ families. A lot of the riders have other siblings. They sit on the sidelines and are excited for their siblings (that are participating.)

“This event shows off what the instructors teach and the progress students have made in learning to ride in whatever ability. They work very hard in their skill sets. The program teaches them so many other things too — socialization, strength … their speech usually improves too.”

Becki Nations of Jackson, 26, has been participating in MVTH for a decade. Having been the second person to sign up and continue with the program, she is proud to be a charter member.

Becki’s twin, Rachel Nations, and mother, Margie, were present to support her at the show. Becki rode CJ, an appaloosa, in the first class, “Going to the Party.” The obstacle course included placing an RSVP in a mailbox, circling a barrel and crossing ground poles.

“Becki does awesomeness for a living,” said Allison Elfrink, event photographer.

Elfrink’s opinion is probably derived from Becki’s permanent smile and participation in various activities. Just this spring she participated in the Steamboat Triathlon and City2City Run and Relay with MyTeam Triumph, an athletic ride-along program. She loves to swim and participate in church activities.

Rachel, who tries to support her sister as much as possible, said, “She keeps us busy.”

Becki has cerebral palsy and has trouble using her right hand. “Riding helps with balance and core muscles,” said Rachel. “She sure meets lots of new people at MVTH.”

And when a horse retires, as did Becki’s horse, Beaver, it’s sad. “They try out different horses for leg length, personality — to see if they mesh,” said Margie. Her current horse, CJ, is playful. “He takes Becki’s (wheelchair) joystick and puts it in his mouth,” she said.

“They also choose a horse according to gait and its width…to match that of the rider,” said Rachel.

While riders were out in the ring going through the obstacles courses, side walkers were alongside them.

Lois Lee Ramsey, 77, of Commerce, said she felt really comfortable with her sidewalkers, Becky Huck and Cheryl Hanschen. After riding Ace in the first class and receiving her trophy, she said, “I had two really good sidewalkers.”

Ramsey, who has had Multiple Sclerosis for about 20 years said, “Someone told me about the program and I thought it was worth a try.

The three things she likes best at MVTH include seeing the beautiful horses, riding a horse and seeing how it relaxes her muscles and how riding makes her feel better emotionally because she forgets she has a handicap and feels like a normal person.

The riders are not the only ones benefitting from equine-assisted therapy.

Jeremy Obergoenner, in his second month of volunteering at MVTH, is a physical therapy assistant at Beginning Concepts in Jackson.

His profession is also his passion and that’s why, “I do it for a living and in my time off,” he said.

He knows a little about horses but volunteers for, “the joy of working with children and adults. It’s a great opportunity for functional abilities to progress and for better performance.

“So many riders have lived lives of being in and out of hospitals or therapy. This is a great change of environment. It opens up different parts of the minds and helps their disabilities,” he added.

Brunke said, “We have plans to continue to grow our program at MVTH. We would love to add more riders to our program and possibly add a therapeutic program for veterans one day.

“We All love Horse Show Day here at the barn! It’s so exciting to watch our riders show off their skills. I love seeing the smiles on their faces. It just reminds us all why we do what we do here.”

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