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Therapeutic power of horses

Riding therapy program founded in 2008, looking to expand to benefit more

Horse lovers of all ages poured into the valley just west of Granite Falls to attend the annual Cowboy Christmas, held at a ranch in December. The ranch that hosts the free event is the home of the Lee-Mar Equine Center Inc. and the Minnesota Valley Riding Academy.

“We used to have a summer celebration, but the Cowboy Christmas we have held the last few years is a big hit, with more families attending every year. We have horseback rides, craft tables for the kids to work at, a few vendors, refreshments served by the kids with 4-H, who donate all the free-will donations they get to the riding program, there are wagon rides, and Santa is always a big hit,” said riding instructor Keisha Louwagie.

The arena was  buzzing with children of all ages, some walking around carrying one of the many friendly cats that live there, making pinecone bird feeders, riding stick ponies, munching on cookies and hanging on gates reaching out to make friends with the horse stabled within.

“The Cowboy Christmas gives us the opportunity to show the public what our riding therapy program is all about. Plus, it gives families a chance to be with animals. Many families live in an apartment where they cannot have a pet, so they get no hands on with a cat or dog and would never have the chance to stroke or ride a horse. The horses have so much to offer, and it feels good to see kids reaching out to even touch them. It is just a real fun day,” said Louwagie.

The therapy riding program is strictly non-profit and relies greatly on volunteers. Some people might be classified as staff or therapists, but they are providing their services without the benefit of a paycheck. The program is actually a youngster itself, as it began in 2008 as the brainchild of director Jerry Ims.

“I have always loved horses and was around them a lot as a kid but had been away from them for over 30  years. Then a friend invited me on a trail ride, and I was hooked all over again. When I moved back to the area and got horses of my own I realized how much I had missed them and how much being around them can do for a person and began to move ahead with the program. In December of 2009, we were able to purchase this facility, and we began with our first riding program in 2010. In the beginning, a lot of the riders were friends or family members of those involved with the program, kids, grandkids or people we knew, but as Keisha Louwagie, Sally Smith, Ray Miller and myself began to develop the program that changed. Instructors had to go through training and become certified.

“We do three sessions of therapy riding – in the spring, summer and fall. Each session lasts six weeks, two nights a week, serving 20 riders a week in the spring and fall and 30 riders in the summer. We have six riders who started with our program when we started; they are still coming to ride and are now riding without a lead or walker. Each team has a rider, horse, leader and walker. The lead holds the horse and walks with it at all times. The walker walks beside the rider in case they need any help. Once a team is appointed, when a session begins, we try to keep that team together for the full six weeks. It makes the riders, more relaxed and we feel it helps to enhance more positive results to have that same set for each ride.

“Riding therapy is helpful for a number of challenges, autism, ADHD, physical challenges – emotional and learning disabilities, visual impairments and behavioral challenges. We have also served some adult clients from a group home in Marshall. They loved it. The riding motion develops core strength and muscle tone and does things that are not always so visible on the outside.

“We would like to expand our program to serve families that have been domestically abused as well as veterans who are facing challenges. However, at this time we have a waiting list of those wanting to get in the therapy programs and we are limited by the number of volunteers available. We are always looking for volunteers. There are various ways that volunteers can help. We  need people to exercise and groom the horses, grant writing, bookkeeping and fundraising just to name a few. Some volunteers can help with every session and some can’t, and we understand that. The riding sessions are scheduled for after- school hours, so some of our volunteers come when they get off work,” said Ims.

When the program began, they borrowed horses; fundraisers and donations have allowed them to purchase 14 horses, as well as make improvements to the facility and care for the horses. Some of the riders are in wheelchairs and need a lot of assistance to get on the horse. The riding academy recently was awarded a grant for the purchase of an electric hoist which makes it easier to help riders that would otherwise need to be lifted into the saddle.

“We hold a fundraiser at Prairies Edge casino once a year; we have received some generous donations from the Upper Sioux Community, YME FFA, 4-H kids, Valley Riders Saddle Club, and local civic organizations like the Lions, as well as individuals. That is how we were able to buy our own horses. We look for geldings in their mid to late teens, horses that have a lot of good years left in them but are too old for active ranch work.

“We had lots of volunteer help when we did the roof; a carpenter  offered services and was up on the roof with FFA and 4-H kids. Donations paid for the new roof on the facility. We also raise money by boarding horses, letting other riders use the arena, and holding clinics, like horse training and roping.

“We plan to gradually expand our service area; we have riders that come from Spicer, Marshall, Montevideo, Clarkfield, Olivia and Granite Falls. Many of our volunteers are from Granite Falls, but others drive quite a ways to help. Some volunteer both for the Monday and Thursday sessions, some help for two hours each time, and some only one hour, whatever works for them.

“Sometimes it seems like our volunteers get as much out of the program as those that come for therapy. I don’t know who originally said it, but there is a quote that pretty much covers how I feel about horses and the therapy program, ‘The outside of a horse is good for the inside of man,’” said Ims.

“It really is amazing to see the effect the horses have on the riders. We have had students that were so afraid of the horses in the beginning. It took three weeks before they would even get close to the horse, and now those same kids hug the horses and cry when they have to get off the horse and leave,” said Louwagie.

“There are sometimes scholarships available for those who can’t afford the fee. We occasionally get a donation that will specify that it is to pay for a specific rider, and local civic organizations have been very generous giving funds for scholarships. I wish they could see the results of their donations. The program isn’t for everyone, but it is wonderful  for those which are a good fit,” said Louwagie.

The calm, relaxing atmosphere the horses foster was evident to anyone attending the Cowboy Christmas celebration. Anyone wishing more information about the therapy riding program can find it at or phone 320-564-2310.

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