Story by Evan TengEvery Thursday, participants in the Community Horse Program meet in an indoor arena nestled on the slopes of Immigration Canyon. The Community Horse Program is part of an equestrian program that is run by Camp Kostopolous, an organization which serves individuals that have physical or mental disabilities. Participants display their traits to volunteers and staff that may have been overshadowed by their disabilities, such as their unique sense of humor, top notch horse riding skills, and bravery in the face of incredible adversity. Riders also experience dramatic physical and mental improvement as a result of interacting and working with volunteers, instructors, and horses.
“Riders get increased balanced, strength, posture, self-awareness, and social skills,” says Equestrian Program Manager Taylor Timmerman who oversees everything horse related that takes place at Camp Kostopolous. “The degree of improvement depends on the individual and how frequently they come to the program,” remarks Timmerman putting a special emphasis on “individual.” “There are really no blanket statements that you can apply when it comes to horse therapy. Individuals can respond poorly to something that worked [well] for someone else [with the same disability].”
The need to keep in mind that each rider is an individual is integrated into lessons in several ways. Instructors create a unique objective at the beginning of each lesson that students try to meet. At the end of the month, the instructor evaluates how well pupils meet the assigned goals. Once they evaluate the student, they share the information with the appropriate parties, such as the student’s parents. Instructors can also create a one of a kind courses out of equipment for students to navigate or instructors can just hang out with a student. There is a lot of variance between each lesson.
Instructors need to be detail oriented, attentive to their students, able to read the rider and horse, and have a great deal of experience due to the integral role that they play in lessons. “These are skills that take time to acquire. All of our instructors have 10+ years of experience working with horses,” Timmerman remarks. Instructors also need to match riders with the appropriate horse. Timmerman states, “Each horse has a very distinctive personality. This means that each horse is suited to work with a particular type of participant.” But sometimes a participant will select a horse without an instructor’s input.
Horses are good at interacting with the types of individuals that the Camp serves because of their fight or flight nature. Once a horse has determined that it’s safe and in no danger, they become very attentive and perceptive. This attentiveness allows them to interact more effectively with participants than humans in some cases. It also allows them to help participants that are nonverbal since they are able to pick up on cues that humans are not able to. Horses’ rhythm and gait can also heighten participants’ self-awareness. These factors can help patients advance from people who don’t speak to people who speak their first words on horseback.
Although there are some variations between horses, all horses that are suited for therapy share a certain set of traits that enable them to excel at interacting with individuals that have disabilities. First, horses need to be “bomb proof,” which means that they are not startled easily. Second, they must enjoy doing work. If horses are unable to cope with the repetitive nature of their task, they can become depressed and burnt out. Therapy horses are selected for the equestrian program at Camp Kostopulos through a combination of networking and donations. A horse must go through a 30 to 60 day trial period before it is fully accepted in to the program in order to insure that it has the necessary ingredients to become a good therapy horse. Once a horse has proved it has what it takes, a transfer of ownership will occur between the current owner and the future owners. This process is optional in other states but is taken very seriously in Utah.
The quality of the equestrian program has attracted a diverse group of volunteers and attendees who enjoy interacting with each other. This sort of interaction has created an environment that’s going to serve the community in the coming years.