Horses That Heal

Written by: Claudia Stack | Photographed by: Virginia Gates Photography

“When I am bestride him, I soar; I am a hawk; he trots the air.” Shakespeare, King Henry V        

When six-year-old Wren rushes up to kiss Butterball on the nose, she isn’t thinking about the fact that he was selected because he is unusually gentle for a Shetland pony.  Once she is happily in the saddle, she probably isn’t aware that she is improving her core strength.  As she chats away to her instructor, Wren doesn’t notice that she is producing words more easily than at other times.  During the time that she spends at the Coastal Therapeutic Riding Program (CTRP), Wren is first and foremost a child enjoying a bond with a horse–and that’s just how Kim Niggel, Executive Director of the CTRP, wants it.

Therapeutic riding started in the Wilmington area in 1999 at Castle Stables, and the Niggels became involved in the nonprofit in 2004. In 2007, Kim became the Executive Director of CTRP.  After years of renting space in Wrightsboro, Kim and Tim Niggel purchased a farm on Sidbury Road and named it “Russell’s Reach” as a tribute to Kim’s grandparents. 

Farm life was quite a change for the Niggel family, but in addition to providing a permanent home for the CTRP, it has brought unexpected joys.  Tim Niggel, an engineer, now spends time on weekends clearing a riding trail around the 23-acre property. Growing up helping with the program encouraged daughter Courtney, now 25 and herself an avid rider, to become certified as an instructor by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH). 

Courtney took some college course in Psychology, but ultimately realized that teaching therapeutic riding is a career path that combines her love of horses and helping people.  As she directs two students who are playing games on horseback in the CTRP’s “Sensory Grove,” Courtney comments that being a therapeutic riding instructor allows her to “see the difference you’re making every day.”

On average, the CTRP serves 40 riders per week.  They range widely in age and ability level.  Courtney and the other PATH certified instructors tailor each session to benefit riders’ individual needs.  The motion created when we ride mimics the motion our hips make when we walk, so riding increases mobility in those joints.  Other physical benefits of riding include enhanced strength and balance, improved motor skills, and coordination.  Therapeutic riding has also been shown to enhance social and emotional well-being.

The knowledge of the instructors in designing sessions is crucial, but they couldn’t accomplish much without the right horses.  A good therapy horse is really a “saint in horse clothing”– in other words, a horse that seems to embrace its role in the process.  Good therapy horses actually seem to have a sense of purpose. 

For example, CTRP’s Lady is a Quarter Horse mare that is a pillar of the program.  If her rider gets off balance, she stops and waits.  Her stablemate Skeeter, a former show horse, has found his second career at CTRP.  Like Lady, he carries special needs riders in the ring and on gentle trail rides.  Even when it is dinner time he does not rush to the barn.  Instead, he continues at the same steady walk, seemingly mindful not to upset his rider.

In addition to helping children and adults with special needs develop strength and skills, CTRP is home to an At Risk Youth program.  This the part of New Hanover County’s Gang Task Force “Elements” Program.  For the past seven years it has allowed troubled and at risk youth to spend time helping with lessons, working around the farm, and learning to ride.  Kristy Williams, who coordinates the program for New Hanover County, shared a story about one young man in the program.  He has a long juvenile record, and he was very guarded and hard to reach.  She recalls that one day at CTRP the young man was asked to lead a therapy horse.  A short time later she heard him singing the “ABC” song together with the child on the horse.  As the session continued he went on singing, and that day marked a turning point in his willingness to open up to the guidance offered by the Gang Task Force Program. 

Therapeutic riding usually involves one person on the horse and many people on the ground.  For safety reasons many of the riders require people to walk next to them on both sides of the horse.  These are usually volunteers who have been trained to be alert to the horse and the rider’s movements at all times.  Holden Beck, a senior at UNC Wilmington, comes out three or four days per week and even plans to spend much of his spring break at CTRP.  Being involved in the program has inspired him to dream about creating his own therapeutic farm after graduation.

Dedicated CTRP volunteers often grow in their roles with the program.  Tracy Gourville was already an experienced horse person nine years ago when she began helping in different capacities at CTRP.  Recently she attained her PATH certification and is now an instructor.  One of her favorite recollections is a young lady in a wheelchair who said “when I’m at school people see me in my chair, but when I’m on the horse I’m just like everybody else.”

At present, the CTRP offers therapeutic riding, the program for at risk youth, and volunteer/internship/community service opportunities.  For the future the board plans to add equine facilitated mental health sessions, Hippotherapy (using horses to facilitate Occupational, Physical or Speech therapy), and Horses for Heroes to assist veterans.  To create an all-weather space to house the program expansion CTRP is embarking on the challenge of raising money to build a covered arena at the farm.

Therapeutic riding is not usually covered by health insurance, and Kim writes grant proposals and holds fundraisers to keep the program accessible for as many people as possible.  Wren’s mother Erin appreciates the welcoming atmosphere of the CTRP.  When Wren rides Butterball she may not realize that her mother also enjoys their sessions at the farm.  Erin says “it’s a time for the parents to support each other while the kids ride.  I want to bring awareness to the program and to the therapy in general.  It’s non-traditional, but so valuable.”