Spreading Joy Through Little Riders Therapeutic Riding Program

“I have derived so much joy from riding and being around horses in my life, that to see these kids enjoy it over and over again, especially since these kids really need it, makes me want to share the joy of horses with them. It’s really rewarding.” These words were shared by Andrea Fieber, a two year volunteer with Little Riders Therapeutic Riding Program in Arroyo Grande.

Getting Started

Andrea at Little Riders
Andrea at Little Riders

Andrea has been volunteering with the Little Riders program nearly since its inception two years ago. Lisa Ankenbrandt, Little Riders Program Director, was asked by Natalie Baker, Cal Poly’s Equine Center Supervisor, to speak to an Equine class about the program when it was first launched. Andrea was a student in that class, and reports, “It was something familiar and fun. I was just going to check it out to see how it would go, and here I am still involved two years later!”

The program was familiar to Andrea because she had provided a two-hour horse introduction session for participants who were part of an overnight summer camp program for special needs teens and adults back in her hometown of San Jose. Andrea explained the outcome of her involvement with her hometown program with the following, “We had different people each time, and most of the focus was on getting the students to know that they were capable of being on a horse. We had many smiling faces at the end of every session.”

Little Riders started as a small, focused and purposed program, and continues in that vein today. Andrea describes the changes she has experienced since she first began volunteering her time. “The volunteer group has grown, yet we generally see the same core people. At first we weren’t quite sure who was capable of handling which horse, but now we are able to train the new volunteers, and know who is best with one horse over another.” Andrea went on to explain how the riding aspect has matured, “There is a lot more structure to the lessons now. Our first two girls were so different, and had such different needs and responses to the horses, that it was difficult to adjust to each learning style and specific need. Now, there is more structure with the same activities in each lesson.”

Impact on Kids and Volunteers

Happy Trotter

One rider who has been with the program nearly since the beginning stands out in Andrea’s mind as a great example of the impact that horses can have on a child’s behavior. Little “Billy” started out pretty fearful of horses. “Some days, he would just show up and see the horse, and that was the most we could do,” Andrea says. “Then we found out that he really likes to trot or even nearly-trot, now that’s all we have to do to get him out of a grumpy mood. Whenever he is getting upset, we trot with him in the saddle and that gets him focused and happy again.”

Andrea had her own awakening moment regarding different approaches to getting a student involved with horses. This moment was with “Sue”, a teen girl who was very reserved. “Sue would not make eye contact. She would walk with her head down staring at her feet most of the time. She was indifferent to the horses. We tried to get her to participate, but she did not connect with the horses. One day, it began to rain just before Sue’s lesson. We had volunteers available and the horses out, so instead of clomping around in the rain and mud, we had a ground lesson. Sue groomed the horse, interacted with him, and it completely changed her. She experienced the appreciation of the horse being groomed, along with him breathing and even sneezing on her.

She became actively involved with the creature and it changed her reaction to the world.”

That was the first time Andrea had witnessed such a drastic change in a person as a direct result of interacting with a horse. Sue’s lessons were better each time from that day forward.

The Horses Make the Program

“It’s amazing that we are able to use horses boarded at the facility who don’t get used much otherwise. We are all learning, yet at the end of the day, it’s the nature of the horse that makes this all work. They have learned what their jobs are:  To listen to the handler and to the rider on their back. They have to decide to behave each day,” Andrea says. She also values what Lisa, the Director and sole Instructor, brings to the program. “Lisa is the most wonderful person. She is so flexible and never gets upset. She is fantastically patient. Even when she self-proclaims herself to be ‘a little frantic’ she will always apologize, and in the end, she runs a great program.”

In conclusion, Andrea has this to say about one of the most unique riding programs in our beautiful county. “Little Riders has been a very humbling experience for me in so many ways. Seeing these parents go to such great lengths to get a smile out of their kids, experiencing the enthusiasm of Lisa and the other volunteers, seeing these kids smile every day, and watching helpers respond with acceptance and patience, even if goals weren’t met, challenges me to do the same thing. I see success in a different light now, and I have learned that my idea is not the only way to execute something.”

Happy Rider

Little Riders

Little Riders is a Therapeutic Riding program directed and instructed by Lisa Ankenbrandt at the Eric Wagner Training Center in Arroyo Grande, CA. It is funded by Jack’s Helping Hand with four, 10 week sessions per year. Check out our previous SLO Horse News article introducing Little Riders. Contact Lisa at SLO Hoofbeats Therapeutic Riding or Jack’s Helping Hand website for more information on volunteering or joining the lessons. We all have busy lives, and we all have our own “problems”, but giving back the way that Andrea does with Little Riders is something that does almost as much for our own feelings of well being as it does for the participants in the program.

LR hnadling the feathers

Photos: Sharon Jantzen

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