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Alive and Astride, Therapeutic Equine Program Strengthen Body and Soul

For someone with limited use of her legs, riding a horse is magical. High in the saddle she is looking down at people instead of up from a wheelchair. The horse gracefully prances around the arena while the rider gives unspoken cues with her hands, her movements, her emotions. The horse is reading all of that and responding in turn.

The horse's gait mimics the muscular movement of walking for the rider. Even though the rider may not be able to walk independently herself, the

muscles and neurons in her body are familiar with this movement and are strengthened by it.

The emotional and the physical therapy horses provide are all part of the North Country R.I.D.E. program in Esko. Started in 1982 by Linda Finn

of Duluth, North Country R.I.D.E. provides therapeutic equine activities to clients of all ages who have disabilities such as autism, blindness, cerebral palsy and depression.

"Basically, anyone who needs positive input in their lives," said Finn of those who benefit the most from the program. "There are so many ways therapeutic riding can be used."

The riders develop awareness, self-confidence and improved concentration, says Finn. Staying balanced on the horse while it walks or trots helps to strengthen or relax muscles while improving posture, core strength and balance.

Sara Max of Virginia is amazed at what therapeutic riding has done for her two children, ages 7 and 10, who have hypotonia (low muscle tone).

"Before starting horse therapy it was hard for my son to do one sit-up on his own," said Max. "The week after his first time on the horse he was able to do one full sit-up. The following week, he did four. Now he can do 10 on his own."

Max has also noticed her daughter's increased confidence and willingness to try new things. She especially appreciates how the volunteers have built a relationship with her children through patience and respect.

Finn, a physical therapist and longtime horse owner, founded R.I.D.E after reading about a similar program in Menomonie, Wis. She did some research, rallied some help and some horses, and pieced together a program. With the help of grants and donations, the program bought property and eventually opened its own arena in 1990. North Country R.I.D.E is a member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, operating with one

part-time program director and as many volunteers as it can get.

While the human-animal bond is wonderful to observe, Finn speaks strongly about the connections made between the "riders" and the "walkers" - the

clients and the volunteers who walk alongside the horse to keep the rider safe. Deep friendships often develop.

"One of our riders was a 15-year-old girl with a head injury,"

Finn said. "The volunteers just happened to be kids from her school who had been ignoring her because now she was different and they didn't know

what to say. (After working together) they started saying hi to her at school and they had something in common to share."

Michaela Houser started as a volunteer when she was 10 years old because she loved horses. She's now 17 and organizes the Junior Volunteer Youth Program, which teaches kids ages nine to 13 how to handle and ride horses, along with how to work with individuals who have special needs.

"I definitely get more than I give. I've gained so much life experience,"

said Houser.

The current economy has taken its toll on the program and grant-writing and fundraisers are a constant part of keeping the program afloat. They rely heavily on donations - especially donated "horse time." The program has only three horses of its own.

"It takes a lot of organization, but if I believe in something I'm very willing to support it and get others to support it, too," said Finn.

The public is invited to North Country R.I.D.E.'s 2nd Annual Play Day Fundraiser on September 11. To learn more about this event, the programs, volunteering or donating visit or call 218-879-7608.