Healing Horses

Healing Horses

Special Equestrians welcomes all riders to saddle up

As the sun begins to set over Pelham, Ala., two riders play red light, green light on their horses in an open field at the farm. 

“Back up, back up,” instructor Madison Pozzo yells. And the two riders guide their horses to take a few steps back because it is a yellow light, which allows the riders to practice leading their horses backwards. Finally, it’s a green light again, allowing the riders to lead their horses forward, and one rider crosses the finish line. Victorious shouts fill the air as the winner is declared. These two young riders are more skilled on top of a horse than most average people, but they are no average riders.

Special Equestrians welcomes young riders with physical to cognitive or emotional disabilities and illnesses to saddle up and find therapy on top of a horse. It may be an unusual way to approach therapy for these riders, but the instructors have plenty of stories about just how freeing riding a horse can be for someone who is accustomed to boundaries in their lives.

Founded in 1985 by horsewoman and former New Yorker Rita Mendel, Special Equestrians has served hundreds of riders in multiple locations in the greater Birmingham area for more than 35 years. The stables are now located at a farm in Shelby County, with open fields and an arena nestled between a pond and forest. The advanced riders love to ride their horses on the trails in the forest, letting them experience a place they might not be able to in a wheelchair or where they feel comfortable venturing out on their own two feet.

“Special Equestrians has really given Becca the confidence that she was lacking because Zip enables her to do things that she cannot do on her own,” said Nicole Robertson, the mother of one rider. “It’s important for special kids to feel capable and successful. While she is riding Zip, Becca has the feeling of accomplishment.”

The mission of Special Equestrians is not particularly about the riding, but it’s about the rider. The instructors at Special Equestrians may teach riding skills and horsemanship knowledge like any other riding lesson, but they use the techniques of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International to invest in the rider more than the horse. If riding will help strengthen a rider’s core to keep them from using a wheelchair for a longer time, or if the movement of the horses will help stimulate their vocal cords so they may say their first word while riding, then that’s what the instructors work for.

“Sometimes, that’s all we want from them,” Pozzo said. “As much as they’re willing to do and that we can provide these families with these types of moments.”

Special Equestrians helps riders from various backgrounds through their three different riding programs: therapeutic riding, hippotherapy and horsemanship. For therapeutic riding, the instructors adapt basic riding skills to the rider’s needs. Hippotherapy, led by a therapist, helps the rider exercise, stimulate and strengthen certain muscles through the movement of the horse. For those who are unable to ride a horse due to physical disabilities, the farm offers horsemanship, which teaches the groundwork of taking care of a horse, such as leading a horse and grooming.

“We’re providing the ability for someone with special needs and adapting our teaching and equipment to their needs. We teach all the same riding skills,” executive director Kathi Claybrook said. “Now, for someone who can’t follow through with certain things, those skills may look a lot different. For some, they close their hands and we get excited.”

One rider, confined to a wheelchair, was able to experience places and feelings through horse riding that his siblings could experience daily, Claybrook said. The epiphany that he was able to venture out and live experiences, normally deemed impossible due to his disabilities, motivated the rider to start his own business visiting schools to help people with disabilities build confidence and navigate college life from a wheelchair.

While some riders may not be comfortable around people all the time, they are able to form bonds with the horses that establish intermediaries between them and the instructors. The older, tamed horses at the farm do not expect anything from them, allowing the riders to let go of their boundaries and be themselves.

Terrified of animals, one rider came to Special Equestrians hesitant to even look at the faces of animals, Pozzo said. Lesson by lesson, she became comfortable with being in the presence of the animals and was able to ride her horse without anyone leading her. From being willing to hold a barn cat to feeding a horse a treat out of her hand, she was able to let go of her fear and was able to learn to trust the animals.

“There has been a lot of that,” Claybrook said. “On the first day, [they] cried and [were] scared to death of getting on, then cry because they had to get off.”

As it did everyone else, the pandemic affected Special Equestrians. After shutting down completely for two months, they began to slowly open back up in June 2020, starting with their most advanced riders. However, one good thing came out of the pandemic: the integration of family members in the riding lessons. Before the pandemic, volunteers would walk alongside the riders to help keep them safe and guide them through the lesson. Due to social distancing rules, those volunteers are now replaced with family members. 

“How can you not have a good day when you hear that type of story?

“They’re getting to see what their participant really does in the lesson, and we, as instructors, are learning so much more about our riders who need side walkers,” Pozzo said. “We are learning their learning style and things that their parents know, and may not be able to tell us outside the arena.”

The lessons also help the rider feel closer to their family. One boy was finally able to compete with his brother, Claybrook said. After being awarded a trophy at the spring horse show hosted by Special Equestrians, he moved his brother’s trophies on a shelf over to the side and put his hard-earned trophy front row and center. 

“How can you not have a good day when you hear that type of story?” Claybrook said. 

And that question sums up all the stories you hear about Special Equestrians. Because at the end of the day, when the riders are in the saddle, there are no limits to what they may or may not be able to do, but, instead, they are able to just ride.