Therapeutic Riding in Portland, OR

Read about a Portland, Oregon metropolitan center offering a comprehensive, three-fold therapeutic equine program

For 8 year old Emily the chance to ride a horse and focus on the fun she was having rather than her upcoming chemotherapy session was an event that turned her life around. Not only her's, but life for her family. When her parents first brought her to Forward Stride, a center for therapeutic treatment using horses, Emily was frail, scared, not eating and having nightmares about her illness. Forced by invasive cancer to have routine chemotherapy, she and her family would fall into a dark hole about a week prior to each treatment. They all realized how sick she was going to be afterwards, and they all suffered together.

On her first visit to Forward Stride, she was so weak she could barely sit on the horse that the instructor brought out for her. As the weeks progressed, so did Emily. She became stronger and soon was able to sit on the horse throughout the entire lesson. Emily began eating again and sleeping through the night, a general improvement all the way around.

Her family thrived too. Her fears had transferred to a focus on the horse and the lesson. She no longer worried about the chemo treatments. Emily was more concerned with her riding lessons and brushing the horse with whom she had bonded.

Forward Stride's Mission

Many stories like Emily's surface as Executive Director Trisha Thompson explains the organization's mission, and tells of its successes. Founded in 2003, Forward Stride is Portland, Oregon's only metropolitan center offering a comprehensive, three-fold therapeutic equine program: sport riding, hippotherapy and vaulting.

It is the only organization in Oregon that is fully accredited nationally and has obtained Premier Accreditation status through the industry’s professional organization, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association---(NARHA.), which was recently renamed PATH Forward Stride claims its number one core value is to strive to be brave. Its clients and instructors live by this mantra. It is a value shared by all involved.

Kris McCarthy, an instructor for the organization, says each class is an opportunity. “Working with these challenged kids and adults, I’ve never been sad,” said Kris. “I try to see what I can do with each student to see what he can do. It’s rewarding. I get to be part of their lives.”

Kris teaches different levels of riding to students with different challenges. She has to adjust her classes to fit the needs of the people with whom she works.

One of her recent success stories was reaching a little child who didn’t want anyone to smile or laugh around him. Kris worked with the child and after several classes, made 3X5 cards. One showed a smiley face. One showed a person laughing. She presented the smiley face card to the child, and said, “now we are all going to smile.”

Kris smiled, another volunteer smiled, and the little boy smiled. Then he gave the card to his mother.

Next, Kris showed him the card with the figure laughing. The child, at first, held his hands over his ears, and said, “I don’t think I can handle that.”
Kris said, “You’ve got to. Try.” And the little boy smiled.

“Well, we got through that,”says Kris. “We’ll see what happens next.”

All of this was happening while the little boy was learning to ride a horse and increasing his socials skills. Kris made a game out of this, giving the child choices. Each choice he made empowered him and added to his self-esteem.

“Working with the horse is a remarkable tool.”she says. “It gives the child added confidence to control this large animal.”

Helping Heal with Horses

Not all Forward Stride clients are children. There is the story of the daughter who brought her 95 year-old mother to the stable on her mother’s birthday. Her mother had been raised around horses. Now suffering from Alzheimer’s, she was non-communicative, but when she did talk, kept asking, “Where are the horses?”

Her daughter thought it was worth a try to get her around a horse. The staff brought out a pony and placed a brush in the wheelchair bound woman’s hand, and then stroked the pony. At first there was no response, but after a few brushes, it was like a light bulb went on and the woman’s eyes cleared. For the next 30 minutes she was coherent, talking and giving orders about how to care for the horse.

There are many more success stories than there is room to print. Learning to get along with other riders, to compete and to develop sportsmanship are just a few of the skills Forward Stride imparts, in addition to improved motor skills and eye-hand coordination.

This facility provides the avenue for horses and riders to connect in powerful ways, inspiring riders to transcend the psychological and physical impacts of their medical issues. The smiles and looks of delight on the faces of the riders as the horses respond to a orders is enough reward to keep on working. Some of these students are experiencing pleasure for the first time in their lives.

Forward Stride is a member of the National Standards for Excellence Institute. This institute is committed to raising the level of ethics and accountability in nonprofit organizations, based on the core values of honesty, integrity, fairness, respect, trust, compassion and responsibility. The Standards for Excellence serve as a model of how well managed, responsibly governed, nonprofit organizations operate.

About the Author: Ann Terry Hill is a non-fiction writer, specializing in freelance travel, equestrian and Western writing. A native of Pendleton, OR, home of the world-famous Pendleton Round-Up (rodeo) and Happy Canyon night pageant, Hill has been associated with cowboys, Indians and rodeo (even as a competitor) all her life. She has a unique understanding of these cultures and of the Pendleton Round-Up and the Pacific Northwest. Her travels have taken her to China (one of the first to be admitted during the normalization with the USA in 1979); the best of the horse farms in Normandy, France; the track kitchen and barns at Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week (6 years in a row); an overnight in the Ice Hotel, Quebec, Canada, (very cool!) and a visit with the High Priestess of VooDoo in New Orleans, LA. To learn more about Ann Terry Hill, visit her website.