September 2, 2010 at 8:44 a.m.

River Valley Riders: Breaking barriers one rider-at-a-time

River Valley Riders: Breaking barriers one rider-at-a-time
River Valley Riders: Breaking barriers one rider-at-a-time

Part of being a parent-- the good part anyway --is experiencing that heartswell of pride as your kid does something for the first time. Many parents bask in that glow for years; celebrating the first out-of-the-park homerun, the scholarship being awarded, a trophy presented.

But, for Ron Tyrrell and his daughter Lindsey that feeling eluded them for the longest time. Looking forward to a lifetime of possibilities didn't seem practical.

It was not until 'Lindsers,' as she likes to be called, enrolled in the River Valley Riders therapy riding program that father and daughter connected in recognition of what the world has to offer. Ron said it was at a session at the riding stable, as his daughter was able to mount a horse by herself, and do so confidently, that he finally experienced this.

Lindsers began having seizures several weeks after she was born.

Ron explains he came to terms with what ultimately was an autism diagnosis, but he wasn't one to sit on the sidelines.

The Tyrrell family's neurologist at Children's Hospital mentioned during an appointment that horseback riding sessions may benefit Lindsers. Therapeutic riding helps improve balance, physical and mental coordination and social behavior of children in the autism spectrum, the doctor advised.

And, sure enough, since she began riding in the therapeutic program offered at Rick-a-Shay Ranch, on Lofton Avenue, near the Chisago-Washington County border Lindsers has gained in confidence and coordination.

Tyrrell is impressed with the program for a variety of reasons, and is amazed how members of River Valley Riders (RVR) volunteer their time for Tuesday night sessions at Rick-a-Shay Ranch. Three or four people are needed to accompany each rider atop a horse, moving through the night's exercises or work stations. There's also RVR volunteers who get horses ready and do general maintenance and handle the physical therapy props.

Everybody at the session where the Press attended said seeing the riders smile is why they do what they do.

They come, as volunteers always do, looking to help others but improving their own day when all is said-and-done. Family members and volunteers cheer on the riders under the supervision of Physical Therapist Sally Delgiudice, pronounced DEL-juh-deece.

The theory behind using horseback riding as therapy is well-established, but exactly how it works is a mystery.

Delgiudice said the physical therapy community knows that riding horseback can help to decrease the rider's anxiety levels and heighten sensory systems, focusing balance and muscle coordination. The intangible is exactly how the animal-human connection happens, but it does.

Delgiudice explained that "communication at any level" is the desired outcome in working with differently-abled people, and using horses boosts this.

Delgiudice has been around horses since she was a girl. Soft spoken and compassionate, she tears-up a bit talking in the corral area about the students riding in the program. Small advances in getting riders to understand instructions and being able to solicit appropriate responses matter greatly to this trained therapist.

It is Terryll who informs a reporter that Delgiudice was recently chosen instructor of the year by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NAHRA).

In her career working with special needs students in the 916 Northeast Metro School District, Delgiudice frequently finds that her personal and vocational passions overlap. She brings insights gleaned from working with riders in the ring to her school day, and vice versa. Another bonus is spending time with her daughter Mikaela, who assists with sessions.

River Valley Riders is a non-profit organization with three sites offering therapy sessions; at the Rick-a-Shay, at the Washington County Fairgrounds and at a site near Osceola in East Farmington, Wisc.

RVR supplies three horses at Rick-a-Shay used in the program: Klass, a salt and pepper 21-year-old Arabian, Rahji a fine boned dark brown 14-year-old, and Gomer, a quarter horse who is 13.

Lindsers rides Rahji.

She is advanced to the point where she can turn around backwards on the bareback pad and toss a big soft ball to another rider. Lindsers also dropped a heavy sandfilled ball into a hula-hoop ring on the ground, and shot another ball through a basketball hoop at another station.

She identifies the activity stations by the letter hanging nearby on a wall. Rider perform these motor skill activities from both sides of the horse to develop their whole body.

Delgiudice said some nights they go out on trails and do "scavanger hunts" identifying items outdoors. They might close their eyes and ride silently, reporting later all the things they heard.

Rick-a-Shay owner Pam Foshay has offered her ranch and covered riding shelter to RVR for eight years. There's a waiting list for participants, though, because at this time there are more riders than there are space and horses available.

Terryll said he's met riders and their parents or caregivers who have come from Ham Lake and Blaine, at Rick-a-Shay.

The non-profit is trying to construct an indoor "equine therapy center" on land it owns in Lake Elmo, to be able to offer enough sessions to meet demand.

RVR hosts a "Round Up Dinner and Auction" November 13 at the Lake Elmo Inn and Events Center. This auction will include custom-made horse statues painted by area artists to be auctioned. The event includes a wine tasting before dinner and starts at 6 p.m.

For information about donating or learning how to enroll or to volunteer please check out the website at rivervalleyriders.org. There is a link there to the NAHRA site as well.


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