FAIRMONT - After a break for a few years, students in the Martin County area were able to participate in a special horseback riding field trip this past week.
Students from all four public school systems - Fairmont, Martin County West, Truman and Granada-Huntley-East Chain - ranging in age from preschool to high school, had an opportunity to ride horses trained specifically for disabled and therapeutic riding programs offered by Special Recreational Services group, operated by Michael Oldfield of Lake Lillian.
Horses have always been a part of Oldfield's life, and his own disabilities contributed to his development of a therapeutic riding program.
Dylan Johnson puts pegs in a pegboard while seated on a pony at the horse arena at the Martin County Fairgrounds on Thursday morning. Students Taylor Hilgendorf, left, and Bailey Ebeling assist, along with Amy Hall.
"I went through some trauma in my life," he said. "I couldn't move at all. But my father, he raised horses and he was determined that I was going to ride a horse."
While it may seem like the horse is doing all the work, a rider is getting a workout with strengthened muscles and improved balance.
"I just kept getting stronger," Oldfield said. "If you watch a horse walking from the back, you'll notice they walk in the same rhythm as a human. So it does strengthen your muscles and the core of your body."
Other physical benefits include better motor skills and hand-eye coordination. These were stressed for some of the young riders this week, with stations that included putting pegs in a pegboard, threading large pop beads and putting rings on a stick, all while seated on the horse.
For some of the youngest students, the ride included improving skills such as naming colors and counting.
With continuous therapeutic riding, things such as selecting and adjusting reins, and fastening snaps and buckles, would help increase fine motor skills. Mounting and dismounting, riding with the horse's rhythm and sitting correctly in the saddle and stirrups would help with gross or large motor skills, balance and coordination.
Along with physical benefits, emotional and mental benefits are seen.
"We see some kids [who] are anxious at first, but then they begin talking to the animals," said Brooke Larson, a coordinator at Southern Plains Education Cooperative. "For speech, some of these students don't speak, but once comfortable, they will talk to the horse because the horse will not have a negative reaction."
On the opposite end of the speech spectrum, some over-stimulated riders end up being calmed by being on the horse and being more willing to listen and follow directions.
During Thursday and Friday's horseback riding sessions, volunteers included parents and FFA students. While safety is usually the main concern, these extra helpers can create a more complex social environment for the student's interaction, giving them the opportunity to be engaged in conversation that aims to further social skills and language needs.
"We're grateful for the volunteers and sponsors that helped make this happen, because we didn't have it for a few years," Larson said. "It's good for these kids to experience something they've never had a chance to have before."