“Walk on, buddy,” 12-year-old Mike instructed his horse as they slowly trotted across the corral. At the command of a volunteer walking at their side, Mike and his horse began to trot faster and faster, prompting Mike to break into an ear-to-ear grin.
Mike was one of seven blind youth from the Braille Institute who saddled up for horseback riding lessons Wednesday at Hearts Therapeutic Riding Center. Wednesday’s lesson was the final class in the new eight-week pilot program, which provided weekly 90-minute riding lessons for eight blind students in the tri-county region.
The riding program has been “a really good confidence builder for the kids,” said Bob Quackenbush, who is youth coordinator at the Braille Institute’s Santa Barbara Center. “We just want students to be able to experience life and take steps to being independent.”
Participants in the program have also made great progress in developing physical skills, Quackenbush said. He pointed to several totally blind students who can now sit erect in a saddle after years of struggling with balance and posture.
Planning for the program began several months ago, when Hearts Therapeutic Riding Center proposed the idea to the Braille Institute. Although Hearts instructors have taught horseback riding to people with varied disabilities at their Calle Real stables, the organization had never sponsored a full class of blind students.
Soon afterward, Quackenbush selected eight participants from the youth program at the Braille Institute — ranging between the ages of 10 and 16 — whom he thought would be a good fit for the program. A donor funded the majority of the program, reducing the cost for most participants to only $50 over eight weeks. Children whose families could not afford the fee were provided a scholarship.
The students began their lessons in late May, learning new skills in riding, cleaning, and even cooking for their horses every week. At every step, they were aided by one of the 80 volunteers who work at the center.
Although Hearts is still looking for a donor to fund a second installment of the program, the group hopes to renew it again in September and eventually “put together something more constant,” according to Hearts director Connie Weinsoff.
Hearts instructor Robbie Elconin — who was one of the three riding teachers leading the class — admitted that it was “challenging” to instruct blind students on horseback. She could not use many of her usual teaching techniques, such as instructing students to ride to a pole or playing “Red Light, Green Light” by holding up colored signs. To solve these obstacles, she gave her riders directional cues and rewarded them with “feely bags” containing horseshoes, brushes, and toy horses.
During the time she has worked with her students, Elconin said they have made tremendous progress, particularly in increasing their endurance. She explained, “I don’t see blindness as being a disability at all in working with horses if you practice and work hard.”
For their part, the blind students almost unanimously praised trotting with their horses as the best part of the day. The lessons have inspired some of them to dream of a future working with horses. Thirteen-year-old Floracita said she hopes to someday “get a horse of my own,” while 15-year-old Betty wants to ride horses in shows.