By Elizabeth Riggs
In 1997, a group of parents, educators and professionals set out to provide children with developmental disabilities to opportunity to try therapeutic horseback riding. Twenty years later, the High Hurdles Therapeutic riding program serves hundreds of riders each year and continues to transform lives.
A division of Suburban Adult Services Inc. (SASi), a Western New York non-profit that provides various services for people with developmental disabilities, High Hurdles is a therapeutic horseback riding program that helps cognitively, emotionally and physically challenged individuals by offering them a unique opportunity for growth and development.
Located off Route 39 in Sardinia, High Hurdles utilizes instructors, students, horses and volunteers to teach program participants everything from how to groom a horse to the horseback riding skills themselves.
According to High Hurdles Equine Program Manager Megan Stapley, the program is about much more than just horseback riding. Stapley, a certified horseback riding instructor with 30 years of experience and a background in psychology, says that there are many lessons to be learned just from caring for the animals, and credits the horses for the majority of the successes.
“The riders and their relationship with the horse is why we do what we do. Watching that unfold is really miraculous,” said Stapley. “We are really just the facilitators. The horses are the ones really helping the skills develop.”
She continued to say that, “In pairing the participants with the horses, you really have to know your horses’ personalities and be able to read a person fairly quickly upon meeting them in order to help them find the horses that they are going to bond with the best.”
High Hurdles currently employs nearly 10 different horses in a range of ages and breeds, some of which have been kindly donated by participant families, or are being leased to the program. Current favorites at High Hurdles are Penny, a 17-year-old spotted draft cross mare, and Dancer, a 21-year-old POA mare, though they all play a special part in the High Hurdles and SASi vision.
In 2016, SASi completed the construction of a new riding arena, complete with a state-of-the-art SureHands lift, which allows riders who use wheelchairs to have a more dignified transfer to horseback. The lift also helps provide opportunities to ride for those who may not otherwise have the chance to do so.
In addition, High Hurdles offers a variety of riding and horsemanship programs, but is willing to build a program specific to a participant’s needs. In 2016, High Hurdles began a new, unique course geared toward families—the “Come Ride with Me” siblings riding program.
“This particular program offers the opportunity for people without disabilities to come [to High Hurdles] with their sibling that has a disability,” said Stapley. “What we’ve been seeing as far as outcomes, is that by offering a positive, new, shared activity, the siblings have something in common.”
The Come Ride with Me program specifically allots time with an instructor and builds into lesson plans opportunities for the siblings to work together, focusing on teamwork, highlighting each other’s strengths, and small things, like giving compliments.
“We are hoping the siblings of the participants with disabilities might be able to meet some peers and have some time to do some fun group stuff with some new friends,” said Stapley. “We would love to see it grow.”
As several of the programs at High Hurdles continue to grow, according to Stapley, her position there has been nothing short of amazing.
“It’s pretty much a dream come true, to be able to do something that I’m so completely in love with,” said Stapley. “I’ve been at High Hurdles since 2012 and I’m really, really happy to be there. It’s really just a perfect blend of my professional experience and my personal passion.”
She added that, “I always leave with a little bit of a swelled heart because I’ve been able to watch horses changes people’s lives.”
For more information about High Hurdles or to register into a program, visit the SASi website: www.sasinc.org.