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Equestrian program teaches life lessons
For Equestrian Crossings, riding lessons are life lessons.
Commonly referred to as EqX, the program is a crossroads between somebody wanting to do something and finding a way to make it happen, said Miriam Burk, a founder of the non-profit group.
“The goal was to have a program that integrated both able-bodied and special needs into the same lessons,” Burk said. “The whole goal of working with a special needs population, children and adults, is to make them as independent as possible.”
Founded in 2009 with locations in Greenbank and Oak Harbor, EqX offers riding lessons in both English and Western disciplines. It also has an equestrian vaulting team, a horsemanship class to better students’ understanding of working with horses on the ground, hippotherapy lessons and volunteer programs.
Each and every class is available to able-bodied riders and special needs riders, for students “age 5 to 105,” Burk said.
“Our lessons, though, are more than just riding lessons, which surprises a lot of people, because we incorporate a lot of life lessons inside of our lessons,” Burk said.
Within their lessons, she said, they can work with behavior management, teach math, social skills, verbal skills, geography and more.
“It’s amazing what a horse will motivate somebody to do,” she said. “As one parent described to me, it’s like occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech pathology and life lessons all in one, and all the while learning compassion for the horse, how to care for another living being, and we encourage our students to become volunteers so they reinforce what they learn by helping others.”
Hippotherapy lessons offer time with actual physical or occupational therapists or speech pathologists, using the horse as a tool to help improve in areas the client wants.
These programs have been shown to improve muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination and motor development, as well as increase emotional well-being, according to the EqX website.
The program has two horses of its own, Radar and Kirbey, though students are welcome to join with their own horses.
Burk describes Radar and Kirbey as both excellent people-horses.
“To be in our environment, with both able-bodied and special needs, the horses have to mentally handle a lot of stress,” she said. “These guys do it day in and day out like it’s nothing.”
“Not all horses can handle that kind of mental stress.”
Jacque Diaz, community outreach officer on EqX’s board of directors, was with EqX from its beginning. Born with spina bifida, which prevents her from feeling her legs, among other challenges, Diaz was unable to sit up straight on a horse without help.
“Now, I can ride on my own,” Diaz said.
Diaz met Burk at Walmart about seven years ago and they struck up a conversation. Once they started, “that was that,” Diaz recalled.
Diaz’ lessons started with vaulting, a combination of dancing and gymnastics on horseback. Now she’s on the vaulting team and, with the help of EqX, brought adaptive competitions into the world of equestrian vaulting.
Burk said program organizers met with other coaches in November 2013 and, the following January, regulations were put into competition rules allowing for special-needs competitions.
Diaz has competed in two vaulting meets, most recently the American Vaulting Association Region III championships in Oregon, July 20-22. She earned first place in her category.
“I love being around horses,” Diaz said. “It’s just fun, a new challenge. I get to, when I’m vaulting or riding, find … goals, and once I pass those goals, then I find new goals.”
As the community outreach officer, Diaz said her role is to spread the word about EqX programs. She said she is constantly striving to bring people into the program.
Burk was a volunteer for another program in Virginia. Prior to that, she was in the Navy, but her career ended after an accident left her in leg braces and using crutches.
It took two years to be able to walk for about an hour, Burk said.
After seeing an ad seeking volunteers, Burk said she decided she could stand and brush horses for an hour. Soon, she was asked to help lead the horses into the training arena.
“Within a year, I got certified as an instructor.”
“I came from a family of teachers. I swore I’d never be a teacher. If I’d known it would be this fun, this rewarding and this effective … I’d have been doing it all the time.”
“It really is amazing.”
EqX works with students with a wide range of disabilities, including cerebral palsy, brain injuries, spina bifida, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing impaired, vision impaired, amputees and autism.
One student, an active boy with autism who was nonverbal, started out with four people helping him, Burk said. Within a year and a half, he only needed one person to help him, and was managing to get his horse ready on his own.
Burk said the boy remained relatively nonverbal, but could follow directions and walk, trot and canter on his own.
“And it was wonderful, because he also had an autistic brother,” Burk said.
“The father was able to go on a ride with both of his sons when they never thought that would be possible beforehand.”
Though the fees are $50 for regular lessons and $75 for hippotherapy lessons, the program offers scholarships that cut those prices in half.
However, because of the cost of insurance and instructors, each lesson has a value of $90, so they’re always looking for donations to help the nonprofit keep the costs affordable, Burk said.
EqX teaches lessons three days a week, twice at the Oak Harbor location and once in Greenbank, both privately owned.
On Thursdays, when they teach in Greenbank, Burk said they are very busy.
“A little under half of the students come from the south end or off island,” she said.
Their Greenbank location makes the lessons easily accessible to students living on the South End. Burk said that they have as many students of all varieties, able-bodied or special needs, in all offered classes, from outside of North Whidbey.
“Our reach is well beyond Whidbey,” she said. “We get referred to by other programs a lot.”
Because they recently certified three new instructors, Burk said they are hoping to expand the program.
Board members hope to own one central location for the program, Burk said.
“We want to be able to have the opportunity to be able to offer as many programs as we can,” Burk said.
“There’s just a lot of different possibilities.”
For information on the programs, to donate or to obtain information about volunteering, visit their website at www.equestriancrossings.com, call 360-320-1573 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.