Riding for therapy: Area program lets participants leave their limitations behind

Photo for the Mirror by Ellen Coyle From left are side walker Tracy Steele, Aaron Eiman riding Bug, Tiaha Weaver leading Bug and Aaron's dad, Jay Eiman.

Dreams Go On Inc., a nonprofit therapeutic riding facility near Canoe Creek State Park in Hollidaysburg, specializes in liberation.

Horses are the freedom medium.

On an evening in September, a group of young riders from Altoona assembled in the Dreams Go On barn at 1401 Turkey Valley Road. For most of the riders, the joy of freedom shone on their faces. Even the normally stoic Carson Frank hinted at a smile. The proof of his independence came as he rode a short trot with relaxed control.

Carson has autism. A student at Altoona Area Junior High School, he has been riding for eight years. His mom, Laura, recalled that when he first came to Dreams Go On, he was a bit apprehensive, but he would still continue. For her son, “It’s relaxing, calming,” she said.

Carson’s dad, Jim, and sister, Sydney, were also there to watch him ride.

Laura said, “We have as much fun as he does.”

“It’s a great program,” Jim said, “It really is.”

Aaron Eiman’s brilliant smile seemed to validate that opinion. Now 15, Aaron has been riding for 11 years. “It’s hard work,” he said, but his smile never stopped.

From his wheelchair, Aaron looks up at most people. But aboard a horse, people look up at him.

He left his wheelchair at the top of a ramp to mount Bug. Tiaha Weaver led Bug, with Tracy Steele and Aaron’s dad, Jay Eiman, on either side the horse, holding Aaron to make sure he was safe and secure.

What does Aaron like most about riding? “I fall in love with the horses,” he said.

Aaron has cerebral palsy. Along with the emotional and mental benefits of riding, there’s a physical therapy aspect. The rhythmic movement of a walking horse “moves Aaron’s hips,” said Debbie Kelly, the longtime Dreams Go On program manager.

Mya Polito, 16, is this year’s Dreams Go On ambassador. Another AAJHS student, she has been riding for eight years. Her dad, Stephen Polito, said she can now ride bareback and even backward. She is autistic. “It’s very soothing for her,” he said, “She loves the horses.”

Karen Strayer, the lead instructor, played music on a smart phone attached to her waist. She reminded all the riders to sit straight as they began their lesson in the large indoor arena. The willowy Mya looked even taller aboard her horse. With a leader and two side walkers assuring her safety, she started snapping her fingers and “dancing” in her seat.

Ryleigh Stollings, 8, came to the barn for the first time this year. Ryleigh goes to Pleasant Valley Elementary School.

“She was really scared,” her grandmother, Annette Caracciolo, said. “She had a lot of anxiety, but she overcame it when she saw the horses. You could just see her self-esteem lift,” she said.

Strayer had asked Ryleigh what she wanted to learn, her grandmother recalled. Ryleigh said “she wanted to trot, gallop and canter, and she did it,” Caracciolo said, adding, “I can’t say enough about these ladies.”

Dreams Go On operates four days a week from March through the end of October. During the winter, it offers private one-on-one lessons two or three days a week.

Almost 60 people ride at Dreams Go On, and there are about a dozen on a waiting list. Riders start as young as 5 years old.

Kelly said an older man with arthritis comes to exercise horses from his wheelchair. He holds a long lead line that is attached to the horse and verbally gives her commands to walk, trot and canter. She moves in a circle around him.

“He still achieves a goal without even riding,” Kelly wrote.

Dreams Go On exists to help adults and children who are physically challenged, or who receive mental health, behavioral health or family therapy services. There is a minimum charge to cover instructor fees. But allowances are made for those needing assistance, and riding grants are occasionally available.

The horses at Dreams Go On “are put through a big training process before we use them,” Kelly said.

For people with limited mobility or other restrictions, Kelly said learning how to control a horse can expand their sense of self. Other benefits include greater confidence and patience.

A Dreams Go on brochure puts it this way: “For someone who can’t walk, see, communicate, etc., riding a horse allows them to experience a new sense of freedom — they mount a horse and leave their wheelchairs and limitations behind!”

For more information or to make a donation to Dreams Go On, contact program manager Debbie Kelly at (814) 312-2614 or visit DreamsGoOn.com. Volunteers are always welcome.