Hope rides through the winter

HOPE volunteer Lilian Paulsen, right, and lead instructor Miriam Burk gives Chey-N a little brush up touch up before a warm up at the indoor arena that HOPE will use for its first winter session. The session is just one of the many ways HOPE plans to expand this coming year. - Cynthia Woolbright
HOPE volunteer Lilian Paulsen, right, and lead instructor Miriam Burk gives Chey-N a little brush up touch up before a warm up at the indoor arena that HOPE will use for its first winter session. The session is just one of the many ways HOPE plans to expand this coming year.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

Chey-N was just getting warmed up.

"That's good, now take her for a figure eight around me," said Miriam Burk, head instructor for the HOPE riding program.

Lilian Paulsen and her horse held a steady gait and encircled Burk with a close figure eight.

"OK, here we go," Paulsen said. "That's a good horse."

Chey-N, whose full name is actually Chey-N Kalilah Hope, was busy going through her paces Thursday evening.

The buckskin quarterhorse Arab mix will be one of the horses used in the first-ever winter session of the HOPE riding program.

HOPE, which stands for Horsemanship Opportunities for Potential Equestrians, works by the motto "Encouraging children and adults with special challenges to grab the reins of life with HOPE."

The program is home-based at the Island County Fairgrounds where it regularly holds riding sessions. It is an affiliate member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, the only NARHA recognized riding program on the island. Lead instructor Miriam Burk is also certified through the association.

A normal calendar year has HOPE sessions occurring twice in the spring, once in the summer and once in the fall.

HOPE is normally on a mandatory late fall and winter hiatus because the weather gets too foul.

But this year, HOPE isn't letting winter send it to the stables, not with the need that exists in the community for the program.

"HOPE is for anyone experiencing a challenge or need," said Denise Boyett, HOPE program manager.

Last year, there were 20 riders in the summer session alone. The other sessions averaged 10-15 riders per session.

While some of the riders frequent the program, there's still the need for new riders to saddle up, said Karen Newman, HOPE board president.

"We are aware that there's a lot more need for our programs out there," Newman said. "We've learned of upwards of 600 special needs students in the Oak Harbor School District alone."

To help jump start a year of serving riders, HOPE will offer its first winter session.

The HOPE winter session will begin Jan. 19. It will run on Thursdays for four weeks, ending Feb. 9.

The session will be held at a covered, lighted outdoor riding facility in the San de Fuca area. The facility's use is donated by Jerry and Carolyn Gravo. Such support is much appreciated by those who keep HOPE alive.

"HOPE is such a great program that benefits children and adults," Gravo said. "The community should definitely show more support for it."

Persons interested in riding in the winter session should register with HOPE before the end of December so the program's upcoming requirements, such as the number of volunteers, can be determined. For information, including the necessary forms required to participate, visit the HOPE Web site at

Newman wants to stress that HOPE is not a program strictly for disabled persons.

"We want to get the word out that HOPE is not as limited as some people think it is," Boyett said. "We're not just for people with severe physical disabilities. We want to serve people with a variety of needs."

Newman points that potential riders could be people who need a focus for their emotions, at-risk kids, kids and teenagers from broken homes or who are homeless, or persons with learning disabilities.

Boyett said that families could come and participate in the program as something for them to do together.

Lessons are developed for the safety, comfort and individual needs of each rider -- but they're also very fun.

"Dylan loves it, he is always asking when he can go riding again," said Brandi Matros, mother of rider Dylan Matros-Borkowski, 5.

Matros said she's seen both physical and emotional benefits from her son's participation in the HOPE riding program.

"His confidence has improved so much. He has better strength and posture," she said. "Emotionally he's able to handle more things going on at a time because of his riding experiences. The horses just put him at ease."

Riders help with the grooming and tacking of the horses, with assistance from volunteer handlers. They ride English or bareback so they have a better feel and connection with the movements of the horse.

Lesson costs are kept low for riders. Sessions cost $25 per group lesson for six weeks, plus a $20 program fee. Riding is offered in group and individual lessons.

"We never turn riders away," Boyett said. "We can't always offer as much assistance as we'd like to, but we always find a way."

Hope first saddled up in 1986. Back then home-base of operations was considered a tiny shed at the fairgrounds.

In 1997 HOPE received a grant from the Boeing Employees Community Fund that allowed them to build the organization's facilities at the Island County Fairgrounds, adjacent to the livestock arena. The HOPE building also houses the fair announcer's booth.

HOPE is ran by a board of seven, plus part-time program manager Boyett, instructor Burk and a slough of volunteers.

The program receives some grants from groups such as Arise, Soroptimist, Island Thrift and other local service organizations, as well as Webb's Department Store. But it still relies heavily upon individuals to help fund the program.

Last year, HOPE had a budget of $24,000, some of which was carried over to this year's funding due to frugal spending, Boyett said.

The budget covers the part-time salary for an instructor, Boyett's part-time program manager salary, rider scholarships, facility maintenance and utilities, office costs, veterinary care for the horses, feed and other horse supplies, tack, insurance, and certification costs for the program and lead instructor Burk.

Volunteers are always needed.

Volunteer handlers must be 14 years old and have a strong interest in learning about horses. Existing knowledge is not required, because the HOPE staff is more than happy to teach new helpers.

Volunteers learn all about saddles, bridles, girths, stirrups and other pieces of tack. They also learn all about horses, horse anatomy and other details, since knowing the difference between the wall, sole and frog of a horse's hoof can make a big difference when cleaning horse hooves.

HOPE is looking for more than just additional volunteers.

HOPE would also like to find a permanent north Whidbey location that would be available for sessions year round, in addition to maintaining the South End location.

"An indoor facility would mean we can offer lessons to riders past the short daylight hours of fall and winter," Boyett said.

The facility would be only the beginning of crossing items off a wish list. For the first time in the history of HOPE, they have created a three-year business plan which Newman said should help make some of HOPE's expansion possible.

HOPE looks to better spread the word of its program. Newman would also like to bring an additional certified instructor onto the staff, as well as expand the certification for Burk, the existing instructor. Also on that wish list is a truck and trailer to haul horses.

"We want to expand our availability, so we can serve as many of these people as possible," Boyett said. "A second location more north on the island would help us do that."

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