Whatcom center offers horseback riding lessons as therapy


NorthWest Therapeutic Riding Center volunteer and instructor Ginger Dunham

NorthWest Therapeutic Riding Center volunteer and instructor Ginger Dunham, right.


As a graduate of the Western Washington University's Behavioral Neuroscience program, I threw my cap with confidence and clarity of purpose. For the last three years I had worked in a lab on campus designing more effective medications for schizophrenia. Through this experience, I learned that I cared deeply about helping people with disabilities and also that I wanted to learn about more hands-on and holistic therapies. I found this opportunity at the Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center where, during the last year of my college experience I was a volunteer, and now I'm an instructor in training.

The motto of the Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center is: "A better day, a better year, a better life." This promise is upheld.

The Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center offers horseback riding lessons to children and adults, many of whom have autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, multiple sclerosis and various other health complications.

The benefits of riding lessons are significant and wide-ranging. Physically, riding builds strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, stamina and symmetry of musculature. Horses are particularly ideal because the movement of the horse requires riders to use the same muscles necessary to walk and maintain good posture. Beyond the physical benefits, the lessons also cultivate communication, social skills, focus, self-regulation and confidence. Perhaps most importantly, the lessons increase a rider's overall enthusiasm for life.

Together, physical and mental aspects of therapeutic horseback riding increase the rider's level of independence. As they experience greater freedom in their lives, the benefits are spread to their families, loved ones and to the community as a whole.

As an instructor in training, I'm exposed to all aspects of running such a unique non-profit organization. The founder, Julia Bozzo, and lead instructor, Hilary Groh, work continuously: teaching lessons, determining activities to help individuals achieve their therapy objectives, exercising and caring for the horses, training volunteers, improving the facility, organizing community events, fundraising and refining their own riding. Even while juggling all this, they consistently demonstrate their sincerity by knowing all their rider's names, stories, preferences and goals.

Initially, I thought that my education in neuroscience and experience with horses and kids made me a perfect fit for the riding center. While it is true that I am useful - as are all of the volunteers - I am continually humbled and am beginning to understand just how far I have yet to go. There is no end to learning. Furthermore, it's clear to me that I need the riders as much (or more) as they need me.

A 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy had been unable to speak or grasp the reins during his first therapeutic riding lesson. Three months later, as I held his horse, his aides gasped as he gently hugged his horse's neck, eased himself upright by his own core strength, smiled, and whispered: "Walk on."

The benefits of therapeutic horseback riding are real and powerful. My own observations as well as testimonies from both the riders and their families indicate that this sort of story is more the rule than the exception. It is true that many conditions will not be fully overcome, and that some degenerative disorders are irreversible in nature. Still, it is equally true that there can always be degrees of healing and ways to maintain a higher quality of life for longer. Every degree of healing is worth fighting for.

Earlier I had said that I realized that I needed the riders as much or more than they needed me. I believe this because I believe that no great idea or intention or action is of value until it gets out into the world and has a positive effect. As a young neuroscientist, an equestrian, and a member of the Bellingham community, the Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center and its riders offer me a way to lead a meaningful life through service to others.

Anyone can participate. There are countless ways to contribute, regardless of horse experience, size or age. I encourage everyone who is interested: follow through on your curiosity, check us out, and see if you can get involved!

Visit our website nwtrc.org for more information.

Ginger Dunham is a graduate of Western Washington University's Behavioral Neuroscience program and an instructor in training at Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center. Window On My World is an occasional essay in Monday's Bellingham Herald that allows Whatcom County residents to share their passion for what they do, an idea or cause they support. Send your Window On My World, which must be no more than 700 words, to Julie.shirley@bellinghamherald.com.

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