By Taylor Shunk
Charlene Thomas never dreamed that life would take her where she is today. “We’re not therapists…the horses are,” said Thomas when speaking about Soar in the Saddle, a natural horsemanship program. Helping others has always come naturally to Thomas. For eleven years she worked as a special education para-professional and over twenty-five years as a ride instructor. In 2011, Soar in the Saddle was created as a way to help adults and children with special needs. It grew to include at-risk youth, seniors, underprivileged people and military families. Thomas, who works as the volunteer ride instructor, said “After the age of 21, there aren’t many programs out there for this population.”
Originally started in Maryland, Soar in the Saddle recently moved to a farm in Felton owned by Maryann Larrimore. Larrimore’s pacer horse, Believe this Bob, went on to win over $800,000 as a racehorse. His earnings helped pay for improvements to the farm (including a paved driveway that is perfect for wheel chair accessibility) which in turn, made the facility great for the Soar in the Saddle program. Along with individual riders, they also host groups such as the Milford Veterans Home, the Benedictine School and the Chesterwye Center. Numerous groups such as the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and various schools visit Soar in the Saddle as a learning experience, too.
All the programs at Soar in the Saddle are offered at no cost and are run completely by volunteers. The program coordinator, Dana Limpert, the board of advisors and around 25 volunteers help to keep everything running. They manage to work on a meager $9,800 yearly budget and rely solely on donations. “We learned to live in the moment and not focus so much on the money,” said Thomas.
The horses used for the program are handpicked and go through over two years of special training. “It’s hard to completely trust horses,” said Thomas but “I trust these horses a lot.” Ben, a very special and well-loved horse, was rescued four years ago by Soar in the Saddle. Even though he has partial paralysis, he became the perfect horse. “We’re all a little broken,” said Thomas. “We respect the fact that he still has something to offer.”
Each session begins with a horse safety and grooming lesson. “You have to make friends with the horse,” said Thomas. “They both need to get comfortable with each other.” Grooming is also the perfect way to work on gross and fine motor skills and sensory issues. “It’s just amazing for anyone wheelchair bound,” said Thomas. A walking lesson is then followed by a ride. Some of the participants have speech issues such as selective mutism. “Riding opens up a language barrier because they have to speak to the horses,” said Thomas. Horseback riding is also beneficial to people with paralysis and multiple sclerosis because it stimulates the nervous system. When Thomas’ own grandson, Watson Howell, was diagnosed with autism, she knew the program would be a perfect fit for him. People diagnosed with ADHD also benefit immensely from a lesson. “It’s amazing how relaxed they are after a ride,” said Thomas “and most get a good night’s sleep afterwards.” Other disabilities that Soar in the Saddle has worked with include Downs Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, OCD, learning delays, PTSD, Parkinson’s Disease, stroke issues, paraplegics, grief, separation anxiety, Smith-Magennis Syndrome and germaphobia.
Soar in the Saddle also recently started working with mini horses that can pull a cart. “They’re perfect for people who can’t physically get on a horse,” said Thomas and “they cost less to feed.” They run a driving program which works with the mini horses and carts. Thomas hopes to order a customized easy-access cart soon.
In the future they want to take the program outside of the farm. “We would love to start bringing the mini horses to nursing homes, libraries, etc,” said Thomas. Agriculture workshops, nature trips and a “fun day” at Dover Air Force base are also in the works.
Thomas said she found purpose in her life through the program. “You just never know where the road will lead you.” For all involved, Soar in the Saddle has become a true asset.