Children with Disabilities, At-risk Youth Benefit from Therapeutic Horseback Riding

​by Ann Gluf, Consumer Affairs Specialist, IDD – Southern Region

Wings of Eagles Ranch, a therapeutic horseback riding center is a place where what seems impossible becomes possible. Riding horses at the ranch is one of many experiences available to at-risk youth and individuals with disabilities who are over the age of 2. The ranch offers therapeutic horseback riding, high- and low-rope adventures and summer camp opportunities in on 88 acres in Concord, North Carolina.

Therapeutic horses provide exercise for both the body and mind. The rhythmic movements of the horse promote strong muscle tone and balance. Sitting high on the horse and forming a bond with the animals promotes a sense of self and wellbeing. Each rider has the opportunity to develop a relationship with the horse and with a therapy team, allowing trust to form and fears to subside.

Christine Cronin is the founder and director of the ranch, a nonprofit agency supported by many community agencies that began in 1999. Her son, Brandon, who has cerebral palsy, was her inspiration for the Wings of Eagles Ranch, which she opened with a vision of developing it into a universally accessible full service retreat. The ranch has come a long way since it opened.

Over the years, the ranch has gone from an old farm house, a barn, and an open corral to a fully covered arena, increased barn area, a climbing wall and zip lines. The most recent additions include eight low-rope elements and five high-rope elements including a 40-foot climbing wall, a 564-foot zip line and a fully stocked pond for fishing and boating – all designed​ to build teamwork and confidence. The farm house is currently under renovation to provide accessibility to all.

Riding lessons are offered in three sessions throughout the year – fall, winter and spring. Sessions are one hour long and available to anyone over the age of 2. Each rider has several different volunteers assigned to ensure their safety at all times. It is typical to see one rider with three volunteers – one to lead the horse and a side walker on each side to assist the rider physically and provide encouragement.

Donna Copeland, who works at the ranch, says the riding and atmosphere at the ranch has played a large role in her grandson, Dylan's, life. At 2-yearsold, it was unclear what Dylan's physical abilities would be. As he began to ride, each lesson brought improvement. You could see the movement of the horse working slowly to improve those core muscles, Copeland said. At age 7, Dylan runs, jumps, participates in sports, and continues to ride.

Summer Camp at the Wings of Eagles Ranch is an adventure with a new theme each year. The summer of 2014 brought "The New Frontier" to over 150 children along with more than 300 volunteers. Regardless of ability, all campers experience riding, canoeing, fishing, climbing, zip lining, singing, dancing, swimming, games and more. Each year in May, a Blue Ribbon Riders show is held to demonstrate everything learned in the riding sessions throughout the year. It is a fun-filled day of events with exhibition riding and time to visit and eat with friends.

Beverly, mom to one of the riders, said her brother, Joey – who has received occupational therapy services off and on since birth to address his physical needs – gradually became completely consumed in his own world of electronic games. He refused to participate in outdoor activities, family time, and occupational therapy.

Then, Joey attended Wings of Eagles' summer camp for the first time this in 2014. Beverly came to camp with Joey and witnessed his transformation. He was able to deviate from his plan to make all activities at the ranch themed around his favorite electronic game. He found fun, confidence, and laughter in surprising places. Friends and family noticed the change in his willingness to try new things and the desire for activities that were initially outside his comfort zone.

Joey now regularly takes walks outside, has an interest in nature, asks to go fishing or hiking, and helps with chores. Additionally, he has restarted occupational therapy services and weekly massages and is excited about all the new things he can do. Now, he regularly says, "I can do anything."

Wings of Eagles is a member of PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International). For more information about the ranch, go to www.wingsofeaglesranch.org; or send an email to wingsofeaglesranch@gmail.com; or call 704-784-3147