Therapeutic horse riding program gets support from UWRF connection

Posted May 4, 2016

A lot of people like to lounge in bed on Saturday mornings, but riders, volunteers from UW-River Falls and horses at Walk On Therapeutic Riding Programs are geared up and ready to go at 10 a.m. sharp.

Ken Giske, co-founder and president of the nonprofit organization, is also the instructor of most of the horseback riding lessons at Walk On, located at 1469 County Road J northeast of River Falls. He and his late wife, Katy, bought the land where the program takes place and called it Double K Ranch. They opened for their first lessons on September 10, 2001, making this Walk On’s 15th year of operation.

Many stables and riding centers are found in Pierce and St. Croix counties, but Walk On is the only of its kind in the region. Those who take lessons at Walk On are almost all disabled, and the stable serves as a place for riders to have an equine experience in a safe and fun way.

Walk On is under the direction of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) guidelines, according to the program’s website. Giske decided to get his certification to teach therapeutic riding after many years of working in adaptive learning, he said.

“I’ve been doing this all my life,” Giske said. “Back in high school I did athletic training, in college too, and I wanted to get into physical therapy. I worked in that, taught adaptive swimming, and it’s the same kinda stuff. I knew this kind of program existed so I looked into it and… now we’re here.”

Riders come to the barn for just over an hour each week for their lesson, including the time it takes to get the horses groomed and saddled up. Though they have UWRF student volunteers at their side if they need assistance, the riders are completely in charge of their horse.

The lesson itself lasts about 30 minutes. Despite each rider’s level of ability, Giske said that the lessons don’t differ much from lessons people of higher physical or mental ability might take.

“To tell you the truth, there’s not much difference. If you got on a horse and she got on a horse and she got on a horse, you’d all ride differently. Doesn’t make any difference who, what, when or why, you’re all different,” he said. “So what difference does it make? If all five of us got on a horse, and I was the teacher, you’d all ride differently, regardless of ability. If you all jumped in a swimming pool, you’d all swim differently, too. So that’s my job as a teacher: to figure out how you all are gonna do this.”

Giske continued: “We just have to ask, ‘What do we need to do to have Jamie ride a horse?’ We have to throw in some sign language. The other boy, we have to remember that he likes consistency. It’s not so much tolerance as just being adaptive. Asking ‘What do I need to do at this moment to teach this rider this skill.'”

Parents, personal care assistants or guardians are allowed to sit on the side of the arena and watch. May Ross of New Richmond has been bringing her daughter Jamie to Walk On for a number of years, and said the therapeutic riding has positively affected her daughter’s life.

“Jamie rode when she was a teenager, and she’s 46 now, but getting back on a horse has been so motivating for her,” Ross said. “It’s a healing bond, I would say. She loves horses, just being near them is awesome for her, she just loves it. She’s totally bonded with this horse. She’s not intimidated.”

Margi Miller, whose daughter Shea is another rider at Walk On, said the program has made her daughter more confident in her abilities, physically and mentally.

“Certainly she’s become more confident and independent. You know, this is her thing that noone else does. She’s really proud of that and she should be. She rides solo sometimes, and I almost need (a defibrillator),” Miller said. “So much of her life is supervised and controlled by others, and trying to articulate what assistance she needs, but she can just do it. That makes this huge for her. It’s such an opportunity.

“And, it’s a hard workout,” Miller added. “It takes a lot of strength to sit up like that. She’ll go home and take a shower and just be done for the entire evening after horseback.”

Therapeutic riding is an area of study in the equine science program at UWRF and is discussed in a number of courses. What makes UWRF unique is that students can become PATH certified through the university. According to Giske, this is offered at only five colleges in the nation. Most equine programs only prepare students to become PATH certified elsewhere. This gives UWRF students a huge advantage, if therapy riding is a career they’d like to pursue, he said.

One of the student volunteers at Walk On is Becky Lyons, a sophomore equine science major with a management emphasis. She said that being at the facility gives students an opportunity they can’t have on campus.

“It’s definitely very hands on, and very involved, and you really get to know the horses, the volunteers, the riders. You get to see the positive changes first hand and that feels great,” Lyons said. “It would be hard to recreate that on campus. All of the riders are really passionate about the horses and look forward to it every week, so it’s just really authentic.”

Though only equine studies students can become PATH certified through the university, Giske said students from all areas and majors at UWRF have volunteered in the past, and all are still welcome to. In the end, Giske said, the volunteers are really what make programs like Walk On possible.

“This program could never exist without the wonderful volunteers,” he said. “They’re a key component to this program. If it wasn’t for them, this wouldn’t be happening. We’ve been really fortunate to have built this partnership.”