By Cathy Janek
Since last summer, the adult participants in the Giant Steps Canopy program have been getting to know Barney, Bazuka, Dixie, Thelma and Louise — all horses at Rich Harvest Farms near Sugar Grove, Ill., who were chosen to work with the adults who have autism.
To familiarize the group of 25 with the horses, they first learned proper grooming techniques and how to interact safely with horses, according to Sara Ratiu, a certified therapeutic horsemanship instructor with Giant Steps, a nonprofit that provides support services for individuals with autism.
In August, the participants began riding one day a week, she added.
Ratiu said the horses “are truly professionals at their job — they know that it is OK to horse around when they are out with each other in the pasture, but when they are in the arena with the riders, they know it is time to work and be calm and gentle.”
She said horse therapy offers benefits for people with autism.
“There are physical benefits of equine therapy for individuals with autism such as improved motor skills and increased strength, balance and range of motion. Cognitively, it improves motor planning, attention span and direction-following skills,” she said. “Socially and emotionally, it gives the riders a sense of independence and self-confidence.”
Ratiu, who “always loved animals,” said she didn’t have a background with horses but when she heard about the therapeutic riding instructor certification program at Waubonsee Community College, it sparked her interest.
“I decided to try out the first class and fell in love with the program. I was thrilled that the classes would give me the education and experience working with horses that I needed, as well as prepare me for a career where I could serve people and work with animals,” she said.
Currently, Giant Steps is seeking volunteers to be side walkers and horse leaders for its weekly therapeutic riding lessons at Rich Harvest Farms.
Ratiu said volunteers do not have to have to have experience with horses, only an interest in helping others.
Some of the volunteers lead the horses and help guide the horses. Other volunteers walk next to the riders to provide physical support or help the individuals give commands.
“Every volunteer goes through an orientation training that familiarizes them with horses and also how to best support the students,” she added.
As a longtime dog therapy volunteer, Jan Lauwers and her dog often visit local libraries and hospitals. As a horse owner herself, when she heard about the equine therapy program at Rich Harvest Farms, she was interested.
Now she volunteers once a week leading the horses.
Emily Eckner enjoys volunteering with the equine therapy program so much that she is going to school to become certified as an instructor.
“The development of the program and the students on the horses have been really neat to see,” she said.
Rich Harvest Farms provides the facility as well as the horses that were selected based on their temperament and size to participate in the equine therapy program.
“They have been very generous,” Ratiu said.