Inside a barn in McMurray, Ella Smith of Washington spends her summer days cleaning, brushing and riding horses.
The 20-year-old first became a volunteer with In-Stride With Therapeutic Riding Inc., at 637 Valley View Road, two summers ago. Smith was diagnosed with autism and ADHD when she was a child.
Through In-Stride, a nonprofit therapeutic horseback riding organization, Smith is able to help take care of the 13 horses in the program. Since 2006, In-Stride has helped dozens of children with disabilities with social skills, walking and allowing the students to have an outlet from their everyday lives.
“We see kids with all types of disabilities,” founder and program director Dana Flaherty said. “We’ve had kids that don’t speak, begin to talk and interact with us. They’re talking to us, telling us about their weekend. They’re doing things that they wouldn’t have done before.”
Flaherty, who works full time as a teacher at Wylandville Elementary, coordinates all of the programs. Along with the volunteer program and riding lessons, the organization has “Mindful Moment” on Tuesdays, which allows anyone to come in and spend time with the horses to relax. On Thursdays, veterans can come and ride, brush or just spend some time with horses.
“Right now we have two veterans that come in and spend some time with us,” Flaherty said. “It’s great. I think everyone is able to take something away from building a bond with a horse.”
A lot of the children with disabilities that come in for lessons have ADHD, autism or struggle with depression and anxiety, Flaherty said.
“We will work with any disability that wants to come here,” Flaherty said. “This is really good with kids with autism. Having a job with the horses brings out the best in people. I’ve seen so many kids branch out just after one summer of lessons.”
The current cost for lessons is $900 per student for weekly lessons March through November. Participants receive between 28 to 31 lessons per year, which comes to around $25 per lesson. Horse-riding lessons are available to everyone, regardless of age.
The program usually receives grants to help fund some participants lessons. Yet for the past two years, Flaherty has struggled getting grants and donations.
“We used to get grants every single year, and haven’t gotten any the last two,” Flaherty said. “We want to be able to provide this opportunity, but if we don’t have the funds to pay rent, keep our animals fed, I’m not sure what we’ll do.”
In-Stride is hoping to raise $260,000 to help buy the 13 acres the facility sits on, fund the programs, build trails on the property for horse riding, build a greenhouse and become an educational center for basic agricultural learning. Flaherty wants to expand the animal therapy to therapeutic gardening, which includes dedicating a portion of the farm to conservation and positive fostering for native species.
As a breast cancer survivor, Flaherty wants to create another program with In-Stride to help cancer survivors. After going through surgery and chemotherapy, she returned to the barn after being gone for a while in 2016. One of the horses, China, bonded with Flaherty when she returned.
“When I would come back to visit, China never left my side,” Flaherty said. “She knew something was wrong with me and for months she was by my side. When I would come she demanded my attention. She really helped me get through what was going on.”
China died earlier this year.
“Before I didn’t think she liked me,” Flaherty said with a laugh. “But when something seemed wrong, she was right on it.”
Along with the 13 horses at In-Stride, there are two goats, two ponies, a donkey, over a dozen cats adopted from the Humane Society and chickens.
“We try to take in as many as we can,” Flaherty said.
The star at In-Stride is an 18-year-old male horse named Ginger. He was rescued at an auction.
“He is a rock star. He will do anything with any rider,” Flaherty said. “He will take any rider, big or small, and he is super gentle the whole time. We can take him anywhere.”
Anyone interested in donating, lessons, or learning more about In-Stride With Therapeutic Riding Inc. can visit their Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.