By Wendy Leigh
When the horse-wrangling ladies of HOPE in South Whidbey spring into action, they mean business — especially when their “business” is providing therapeutic horse riding on Whidbey Island for those with special needs.
The nonprofit foundation has been providing physical, mental and emotional support and therapy on Whidbey Island for more than 35 years, and they have some new equine members of the HOPE family who’ve settled into new lives on the island.
Due to the intrinsic interaction between animals and riders, horses who become part of HOPE are carefully chosen for their gentle, steady and calm natures.
One of the newest additions to the program, the Snohomish stud horse “Perks the Man,” brings along a high-profile reputation for barrel racing and gaming. But he also happens to bond with HOPE riders in a special way, as do Dusty and Ryan, the gun-metal gray Grulla Paint horse who can handle riders with weights up to 200 pounds.
Students at the HOPE program range from those with autism or cerebral palsy to others who are wheelchair-bound or have experienced trauma such as an accident, stroke, divorce or various types of emotional impacts. Sessions last for six weeks, and the students are paired with a specific horse and PATH-certified instructor for the duration of their sessions.
HOPE works under the PATH certification program, which is one of the most strenuous for safety consciousness. Marta Berry, president of the HOPE board, along with board members and volunteers Vicky Howard and Katherine Handran, explained how the program benefits various types of students.
“Simply put, the program just works,” said Kat Handran. “Looking up the research of the benefits of therapeutic horsemanship is astounding, from the itty-bitty riders to very old ones.”
Handran was hit by a car when crossing the road and sustained serious injuries, which she mitigated with physical equine therapy.
“The horse’s movement fits our own movement, which then lubricates the joints and triggers muscle memory,” she said.
Marta Berry tells how one older student suffered a stroke and was told that he would never walk or participate in physical activity again. But after several months of therapy at HOPE, he began to ride his horse again and walk with a cane.
For those with autism or cerebral palsy, the movement of the horse helps them with stretching, reaching for things and moving, providing what they need for physical therapy.
One young girl came into the program at three years of age, and she had never spoken a word. After bonding with her therapy horse for about six months, she was finally told that she must speak the required words “walk on” to initiate movement of the horse.
After failing to speak for 15 minutes and being removed from the horse, she returned the following week and spoke her very first words while mounted on a HOPE horse: “move on.” From that point, she became a speaking child.
Others without the capacity of speech, such as a member of Pat Webb’s family, communicate with the horses through sign language. Webb, owner of Webb’s Department Store, was the founder of the program back in the 1980s and her daughter, Trish Webb, still serves on the HOPE board of directors, along with Berry, Handron, Howard, Kim Berto and Catherine Saul Burnside.
HOPE is currently seeking a new PATH-certified instructor for the program, which is the only paid position in the organization. The requirements include spending one day per week with students at the Whidbey Island Fairgrounds, with a salary and all travel expenses included.
Those who wish to support HOPE can participate in any number of ways, including sponsoring a horse for a set amount of time or even sponsoring a student in need.
The public can also support HOPE by attending the annual HOPE Big Barn Bash on Nov. 9 at the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club. Donated items throughout the year become part of an auction that’s open to everyone.