…and Sometimes, A Whole Lot More
Who has heard of Equine Therapy? It is a treatment involving equine activities or an equine environment to promote physical, occupational, and emotional growth in children and adults who have various mental and physical afflictions. There are equine therapy facilities throughout the US and Canada, and one is located on Harbeson Road just south of downtown Milton.
The mission of Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding (SDTR) is “to improve the physical and emotional well-being of children and adults living with disabilities through equine assisted therapy.” That description aligns with CAMP Rehoboth’s purpose of creating a positive environment and promoting community wellness on all levels. SDTR is an impressive example of how equine therapy works and the CAMP Rehoboth Outreach Program (CROP) is an excellent example of how volunteers can help.
SDTR participants range in age from four to 75. The organization provides services for people with intellectual disabilities, as well as people with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, head trauma, multiple sclerosis, and muscular dystrophy. Physical benefits include, but are not limited to, improved balance, muscle strength, and coordination. Psychological benefits include improved self-confidence, independence, and freedom of movement without walkers or wheelchairs, plus the opportunity to exercise in fresh air on a farm, far away from a clinical environment.
Horses are trained to work with new riders with special needs. They learn to remain calm during lessons yet retain their own unique personality. SDTR employs a horse training technique known as Natural Horsemanship. It is a philosophy of working with horses based on the horse’s natural instincts and methods of communication, and with the understanding that horses do not learn through fear or pain. It takes approximately three months of training for horses to be ready to safely work with riders.
“We have offered equine-assisted therapy sessions since 1988,” said new Executive Director Jo Allegro-Smith “We relocated to our current therapeutic riding center in Milton in 2015.” According to Allegro-Smith, SDTR currently has over 125 volunteers to assist with the horses and during lessons. Comprehensive training is provided to all volunteers and differs depending on their volunteer role. Those roles include Horse Leader, Side Walker, Horse Care, and Barn Care, as well as volunteers who assist with facility maintenance and special events.
Volunteers are invaluable to the program considering there are only two full-time staff. The volunteers from the CAMP Rehoboth Outreach Program (CROP) are a key ingredient in SDTR’s ability to service its participants and facility. Former CAMP board member Leslie Sinclair and her wife Deborah Woods are instrumental in coordinating CROP involvement. According to Sinclair, CROP’s first community service project with SDTR was in 2016. Except for a brief hiatus during the pandemic, volunteers have been back each year since, in the April timeframe.
“Our visit to SDTR has become our annual Women’s FEST community service event. It is very popular, and we usually have a team of 12 or so volunteers,” she said. “The timing works well for SDTR, as it comes at a time when they are getting ready for their new season, and they always have a list of items for us to complete.”
Volunteering starts with attending an orientation which provides an overview of the program including a tour of the facility and a chance to observe a lesson. Interested individuals then submit a volunteer application and proceed with a background check. Once these steps are completed, the volunteer coordinator calls each person for an in-depth discussion to determine in what area they would like to volunteer. All lesson volunteers go through a detailed training program to learn their position. There are other volunteer opportunities that can get right to work such as the Barn Sparkler team, special events team, and facility team.
“CROP volunteers have painted inside their barn area, mucked stalls, pasture picked, power washed, and much more,” Sinclair said. “Last spring, when the weather was not good, we were able to help them prepare for their Kentucky Derby fundraiser and build training aids to enhance riders’ experiences with props for them to use in their riding. Several CROP volunteers enjoy the rewarding contributions so much, they have gone on to become regular SDTR volunteers.”
Program Director Kelly Boyer started off as a volunteer for SDTR and now oversees all aspects of the therapeutic riding program. She provides guidance and support to participants, instructors, and volunteers to ensure the safe and successful implementation of the program and she also manages the day-to-day operations of the barn.
Boyer has a bachelor’s degree in Animal Science and Business Management from the University of Delaware. She previously worked for a nonprofit organization training service dogs for individuals with disabilities and has been involved with horse care, lessons, and showing for over 30 years.
“I started taking riding lessons in fifth grade after begging for lessons for as long as I can remember!” she said. She leased a horse at 13 years old, bought her own horse at 15, and has owned a horse(s) ever since.
Boyer says the most gratifying part of her job is observing the amazing bond that develops between the participant and the horse. “It is an extremely heart-warming experience watching participants grow their confidence and self-esteem as they learn to work with the horse and accomplish their goals,” she said.
A prime example of that is Joey Peet, who has mobility issues resulting from cerebral palsy. His father, Tom, is a VP on the SDTR Board of Directors and facility committee chair. His main role is overseeing construction improvements and ongoing maintenance of SDTR. Peet is retired from a career in industry facility management and maintenance. Tom is CROP’s main contact person. He and Sinclair maintain an on-going relationship for organizing CROP’s work at the farm.
Tom and his wife Sue take Joey to SDTR once a week.
“He is almost peaceful the night after his lessons and sleeps longer periods without waking up through the night,” Tom said. “He literally gets pumped up when we pull into the farm. It’s his Disney World here in Milton. SDTR is a very comfortable and accepting farm for all of our riders. It’s truly a labor of love for our volunteers and staff. The riders feel that love.”
Sinclair and Woods know the feeling. They have participated in SDTR events like their annual barn dance fundraiser that featured a mechanical bull, dancing, bourbon tasting, and a silent auction. “That event was really fun,” said Woods. “Also memorable—one fall, CROP volunteered at their Barn Festival. Our role was to staff the petting zoo, with goats, mini horses, and more. The CROP volunteers loved seeing the kids (and seniors too!) have special moments with the animals.”
SDTR recently received the status of “Premier Accredited Center” from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. ▼
Mary Jo Tarallo is a former journalist and public relations professional for various non-profits including a ski industry trade association. She won a Gold Award for a United Way TV program starring Oprah Winfrey.
Image opposite page: SDTR program director Kelly Boyer This page:Tom Peet, Joey Peet, Sue Peet.