by Lee Juslin
Like most little girls, Michelle Cardosi was horse crazy. But, for Michele, who was raised on a farm, her relationship with horses was real.
Today, grownup Michelle is able to direct her love of and experience with horses into volunteer work with Exceptional Equestrians of Missouri Valley. Serving over one hundred clients per week, Exceptional Equestrians provides therapeutic horsemanship experiences for physically and mentally challenged adults and children. Some of their clients have progressed to the point where they can work individually with the horses, but most need leaders and side-walkers to assist them in riding. Some come into the program fearful of the horses and start out by assisting in grooming the animals or by maintaining the tack or equipment used by the horses.
Michelle volunteers two or three days per week and usually as a horse leader or side-walker. Side-walkers walk alongside a horse holding onto the rider’s ankles and gently stretching their legs, thus combining the fun of horseback riding with some physical therapy. Other volunteers serve as horse leaders, grooming instructors or teach the clients maintenance and cleaning of tack. Recently the group honored Michelle by naming her “Rookie Volunteer of the Year.”
Currently the program has 11 therapy horses varying in size from Phantom, a miniature horse small enough to fit into the back of Michelle’s SUV, to Big Mac, a Clydesdale, who can easily rest his head on the top of Michelle’s head. Big Mac was donated by the owners of a local McDonalds, and, like Phantom, is a favorite of the children in the program.
All the horses admitted into the program are gentle, laid back, and seem to really enjoy working with the clients. That’s why in order to be sure prospective horses fit the required therapy mold; they spend weeks being intensively vetted before being allowed to become members of the program. Since some of the handicapped clients do not speak but communicate only with loud sounds or shouts, it is important that horses in the program are not spooked by yelling, loud noises, or by having clients lean on them or sit awkwardly in the saddle.
Unlike dogs, cats, and other domestic animals, for horses there is no procedure for becoming a therapy pet and no pet therapy certifying association. However, Michelle, a long time member of Love on a Leash (LOAL) with her therapy cat, Cleo, is hoping to find a way to at least get Phantom, the miniature horse, admitted to her local LOAL. Michelle and Cleo, who has been a therapy cat for nearly sixteen years, are popular and active participants in a local library program where youngsters improve their reading skills by reading to therapy dogs and cats. “Since Phantom is about the size of a large dog and really loves people, I’d like to expand his work in pet assisted therapy. Kids flock to him, and besides he just loves riding in my SUV,” says Michelle.
Exceptional Equestrians is a registered 503C charity and depends on support from the Purina Company as well as donations from other groups and individuals. They have a number of fund raisers throughout the year including a golf tournament scheduled for August 2012. You can learn more about Exceptional Equestrians, volunteer your time, or pledge financial support by visiting their website.
Love on a Leash is a national organization dedicated to pet assisted therapy. They have chapters and individual member teams in many states. Learn more about pet assisted programs at their website.