Liz plays basketball and works on her spelling while riding Bear in the sensory garden at Special Equestrians
A horse is a horse. Of course. And anyone who has spent more than an hour or two around them knows that there’s no such thing as “just a horse.” Equines are equipped with vast reserves of talent. Besides their athleticism, horses are also teachers, empathetic buddies for troubled and wounded souls, and astute interpreters of their human companions’ innermost thoughts. Whether electrifying audiences on a global stage like the Olympics, or igniting a child’s imagination in a backyard riding ring, horses are magical. And nowhere is their magic more profound than when it is applied to therapeutic riding settings such as Special Equestrians in Warrington, PA.
This busy stable, set on 40 acres of preserved land, was built in 1999. Special Equestrians serves more than 120 students each week. Along with 10 acres of pastures, there are trail connections to the township’s Lower Nike Park, an outdoor ring, a sensory garden for kids to explore on horseback and a spacious indoor arena.
Denise Quirk, an accomplished equestrian with a background in non-profit leadership and equine management, became Executive Director of Special Equestrians in 2012. “They were looking for someone with a really strong horse background,” Quirk explains. “The person who was here before me was a non-profit manager and was really good at that, but it was time to look at all the programs and the horses in the herd and see what kinds of changes could come with that.”
The instructors work with children as young as two and adults who are nearing 70. “Most of our riders are kids, under 18,” Quirk says. “But we’ve got our seniors program for our over 55 crowd, too.” The programs are varied, ranging from Hippotherapy for individuals with severe impairments, to therapeutic riding, to a program for at-risk students from local schools. It’s an enterprise that relies on committed volunteers, accredited and dedicated instructors and horses that are capable of working with a lot of different people. “Part of our mission is to not turn anyone away,” Quirk says. “So all of our lessons are deeply discounted, about 50 per cent of what it costs to run them. We do a lot of grant writing. Like lots of non-profits, we’re always out there fund-raising.”
A Lifelong Passion for Horses
Denise Quirk has been around horses all her life. “I’ve been riding since I was 11, and it has been a lifelong passion,” she says. “It’s in the blood.” She went through school, earned a PhD, taught history and Women’s Studies and came back to horses. “I had an opportunity to manage a performance barn. I showed hunters and jumpers as an adult—a lot of showing, and a lot of management experience.” Before coming to Special Equestrians, Quirk was involved with Just World International, an organization that works with the horse community to raise money for impoverished children in third world countries.
“One of the things that attracted me to therapeutic riding—coming from a performance background—is knowing what horses are like as competitive partners,” she says. “They’ve been really important to me since I was a kid, on a very spiritual, emotional level.”
Quirk knew that the combination of kids plus horses would always equal inspiration, but it turns out that she could still be surprised by the significance of that equation. She sees how the students grow stronger and more confident as they work with the horses. But the horses? They change, too. “We have one horse that came in this year, Halo; she’s a big draft horse. She was a trail horse and kind of liked her life, but her owner didn’t have a lot of time for her and really wanted to find her a job. That horse blossomed when she came into the program.” Quirk says that Halo went from a shy, but gentle horse that would stand in the back of her stall, to an outgoing, horse that loves everybody, and even enjoyed getting dressed up for the Halloween show.
Halo, it turned out, had some magic of her own. Quirk says that a little boy who started at Special Equestrians in April was paired with Halo. The youngster, diagnosed with autism, was 11 years old and had only spoken in one-word sentences. She says that, along with helping kids learn to ride the horses, instructors encourage students to interact with them and the horses. “All the kids are instructed to talk to the horse,” she says. “To say ‘walk on, whoa, stop, etc.’ and to give a high-five to the aide walking alongside.” Halo and that little boy surprised everyone.
“At the end of the first week he said ‘walk on, Halo.’ His mom said that was the most complete sentence he had ever spoken.” The lessons at Special Equestrians went home with the boy. His mother says that he is now initiating conversations for the first time. “We get to see horses come out of themselves and go the extra mile and we see kids who didn’t know how to make a connection, with other beings,” Quirk says. “To see that is so incredibly heartwarming.”
Collaboration with Delaware Valley College
Because of her academic background, along with her affiliation with Delaware Valley College, Quirk saw an opportunity for a unique collaboration. “When I came in it was logical to me that we would have an affiliation with Del Val,” she says. “Some of our barn staff had come through their program. I spoke with them about starting an internship program, and then pitched the idea of running a course in Equine Assisted Therapies.” She developed an overview course, to give students an idea of the full range of equine assisted therapies, from therapeutic riding to equine facilitated learning. The first course had 24 students. “We’ll be holding training workshops here,” she explains. “I wanted to work with Del Val to give their students another career path. They could work here, intern here, and get some hands-on experience here.”
Horses as Therapists
“I’ve always talked to my horses,” Quirk says. “I’ve always known what they give back.” It’s especially thrilling for her to watch the people in the program discover just how much horses have to give. “Horses are prey animals, and they’re hyper-vigilant—they always need to be aware of their environment.” She believes that is what makes horses superior therapy partners. “They can read peoples’ body language and recognize when someone comes in who has had a bad day.” The kids in the program learn that the horses want to engage with them. “They can reach the animals, and the animals can reach them in ways that people don’t. They’re not judgmental. They have opinions, but they’re not judgmental,” she says. That gives the kids a comfortable space in which to try new things.
The more they work with the horses, the stronger and more confident they become. “We have all our instructors keep progress notes so we have an idea of what they’re working toward,” Quirk says. “We’re teaching them some riding skills, but along with that, they’re learning patterns, sequencing.” Everything in the arena and in the outdoor sensory garden is colorful. There are stations where kids practice different skills, such as identifying colors and shapes, or catching a ball.
“We play basketball with them from the back of the horse. They get lots of those cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms going.” All of this, and they get to experience the sheer joy of working with horses. “And they gain the self-confidence that comes with riding an 1100 pound animal that most of their friends don’t have the chance to do.”
The kids in the Special Equestrians program have lives in their schools and in their neighborhoods. Their experiences with the horses go home and to school with them. “For some, their disability is some kind of mobility issue, so this is their sport. So they get to go back and they’re one of the few kids in their school who gets to ride horses, as opposed to playing soccer or basketball.” Quirk says that the kids develop self-confidence as well as poise and persistence and motivation. “They’ll follow through on things because they want to come back next week and they want their horse to be proud of them.”
She tells the story of a five-year-old girl who was being fitted for new braces. She had been riding at Special Equestrians, and had been getting much stronger. The doctor asked her if she could put her braces on without any help. “Of course I can!” she announced. “I’m five years old and I’m an equestrian.”
Equines Make Great Friends for At Risk Youngsters
Special Equestrians has worked with local schools to create a program for at risk kids. These are often children whose home lives are chaotic or who have been in trouble at school. The kids work together in groups, so they learn cooperation and teamwork. “For them, it’s bonding with a sentient being, learning how to take care of them, recognizing that if they’re going to ride them, that comes with a responsibility for another creature.” She says that the kids absorb all of this, and their attitudes change. “Because it’s in the guise of taking care of the horse, petting the horse, getting the horse ready for a lesson, putting the horse away—it’s all part of building a relationship.” It isn’t so much a set of instructions for the kids to follow, she says, but they learn that there’s a reason for all the things they must do in order to be able to ride the horse.
Quirk says that the kids learn that they get immediate feedback from the horses. “If you move too quickly at a horse, they react. And it’s usually up to you to adjust your behavior, if you want to get whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish.” And the horse’s ability to be in the moment is another valuable lesson. “They’re there in the moment. They do have great memories, but they don’t hold a grudge.”
Quirk says that they have 15 horses in the herd now. She says that before a horse can be used in the program, it must go through a rigorous screening process. “We bring them in for 90 days, and put them through several tests, to see how they do. Then we let the instructors and volunteers work with them.” She says that, because all of the horses need to work with many different volunteers, instructors and students, they have to be tolerant of different people. “We’ve got a fairly aging herd, but they’re so good at what they do that they’ve become experts in their field.”
She broke her hip in a riding accident a year ago, and it gave her a chance to look at the work they do at Special Equestrians in an unexpected light. “I came back to riding with a completely different perspective—it was a more visceral experience.” Curious about how it would feel to ride again while recovering from her injury, she says that she was more aware of every sensation. She could actually feel the horses adjust to her as she regained flexibility and strength. “The one thing about horses I tell people,” she says, “is that there’s always a lot to learn. There is constantly an opportunity to learn from them and see the horses change.”