FORT MILL — Shelly Martinez snaps off pictures and cheers on her daughter, Lainey, as she takes laps around the horse ring.
“She has a lot of sensory issues,” Martinez says of her 10-year-old daughter, who is autistic. “This has helped her posture. She loves it.
“When I wake her up in the morning when it’s time to do this, all I have to do is say, ‘You’re going to ride a horsey today!’ and she’s got the biggest smile on her face.”
Lainey is among about two dozen local special needs students taking lessons that give them a different perspective on the world – from the back of a horse.
The Exceptional Equestrians program – a joint effort by Anne Springs Close Greenway and Fort Mill schools – is in its 15th year offering this therapeutic experience to students aged 5 to 10.
In total, 20 children from Riverview Elementary joined program organizer Beverly Kirkland, her team of volunteers and greenway staff to begin the program, which also includes some Rock Hill students.
The sessions last two hours and students return every Friday for two months. Kirkland said teaching the students how to ride has a variety of benefits.
“The number one benefit is motor,” she said. “The rhythm of the horse helps kids relax. So, a lot of the kids that have low motor, or tense motor, or physical disability at all, it relaxes them.
“Kids will talk on the horse (who) will not talk anywhere else…there are things on their (Individual Educational Plan) that every child must have in school, and they have goals, one of which is to follow multi-step directions… for the child to take the reins, that is one of the biggest benefits, the following of directions.”
Kirkland, a retired teacher who worked with special needs students in Fort Mill schools for 32 years, has been a part of Exceptional Equestrians for seven years. It takes considerable planning and teamwork to make it happen in the spring and fall each year.
Teams of helpers lead each child, one by one, up a ramp to get them into a saddle. A “back rider” sits behind each child to keep him secure during the ride, and “lead walkers” then guide each horse into a horse ring for an experience that lasts about 30 minutes.
“Side walkers” are positioned on either side of the horse throughout the ride to ensure safety and engage each child in conversation.
“We have to work with teachers so that we know the severity of the (needs that challenge the) children,” Kirkland said. “We have to work with the back riders so they know what to look for and how to work with the child.
“We have to work with the leads and the side walkers to make sure that they know what their cautions are.”
The benefits of horseback riding vary by child. Some struggle giving a command like “walk on.”
“It is a mountain to climb,” Kirkland said.
Throughout the program, parents are given journals to track their child’s progress.