Back in the saddle: Dreams Go On gearing up to resume riding therapy program, fundraising efforts
HOLLIDAYSBURG — “There’s just something about horses and humans,” said two Altoona moms when their children, friends since infants, decided to ask for money for a local therapeutic riding program instead of presents for their birthdays.
The money raised by Asher DelBaggio and friend Ellie Ritchey helped Dreams Go On purchase supplies for the program aimed to help area residents who are physically and/or emotionally challenged.
The two youths presented the money last fall to Debbie Kelly, program manager for Dreams Go On, and while at the stable, had time to pet the horses, watch how the program works and play with the barn cat.
Their donation is important, Kelly said, because Dreams Go On is a nonprofit that relies on fundraisers, volunteers and a dedicated staff to help special needs riders become more confident in their everyday living.
Due to COVID-19, Dreams Go On was forced to cancel all fundraisers in 2020 and had to curtail the two fundraisers it held last year, so the childrens’ donation was even more welcome, she said.
Now, after taking a winter hiatus, the program is gearing back up and hoping the decrease in COVID-19 cases throughout the county means they’ll be able to do some fundraising, too.
The program takes a break December through February, mainly due to the weather, though some riders take private lessons during those months, Kelly explained, because they can’t go several months without the interaction with the horses.
But even then, if the temperatures are below 20 degrees, classes are canceled.
“Horses’ muscles are the same as your muscles,” Kelly said. “If you’re cold and achy, the horses are, too.”
The local therapeutic riding program dates back more than 35 years, Kelly said, noting that she’s been a part of it for more than 30 of those years.
The full name of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit is Dreams Go On with High Hopes, she said. The original program was called High Hopes and started small, with about 12 to 18 riders.
One of the instructors with that program was in an automobile accident, Kelly said, and wanted to start Dreams Go On. Since it was too difficult to operate two similar programs, they merged to become Dreams Go On with High Hopes, she said.
The merger created the program that today is often shortened to Dreams Go On or DGO and welcomes 50 to 60 riders each year.
COVID-19 disrupted the program for a year and a half, but in all the years it has been in place, there’s been only a handful of years where it was unable to operate, Kelly said.
“We sat idle for years after 9/11,” she said, because liability insurance costs skyrocketed.
She was glad the program could operate last year and is anxious to get started this coming week.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” she said, getting papers and programs together and taking phone calls.
Riders are eager to start up, too, she said.
While the positive changes the program brings to participants may take a while to be recognized, Dreams Go On is not a pony ride, Kelly emphasized.
It goes back to what Altoona moms Allison Ritchey and Sarah DelBaggio said earlier — there is something special that happens between horses and humans that can lead to incredible results.
“The emotional aspect is so deep … deep and complex,” Kelly said.
For 16-year-old Amee Seeya, who is wheelchair bound due to spina bifida, the interaction has been “amazing,” said her mom, Michele Seeya.
“DGO has made an amazing impact on Amee, not only physically but mentally as well,” she said. When Amee first came to the U.S. from Thailand, she was shy and quiet, Seeya said. “She was not very confident in herself.”
Not only has she gained increased physical strength thanks to the riding program, but she also has improved in her self-confidence by leaps and bounds, she said.
“Riding gives her something that is ‘hers,'” Seeya added.
How it works
While the riders go over various lessons that help build confidence, strength and flexibility, and interact with the instructors, side walkers and horse leaders during their time slots, the program comes back to the relationship between the horse and rider.
The students are matched up with a horse depending on needs and personalities, with all the horses being laid back, or as Kelly likes to call them, “bomb proof.”
“We have riders who scream with glee the entire time,” Kelly said. Others hug the horse and one rider “only talks to the horse.”
There is also a rider who came regularly for a year before being comfortable enough to get on the horse, she said. “Now we can’t get him off the horse,” she added with a laugh.
In all her years working with the program, Kelly said only two riders would not get on the horse.
While not all riders use wheelchairs, for those who do, the chairs can be pulled right up so the rider can groom the horse, pet it and give it hugs. To mount the horse, wheelchairs are rolled up a ramp where spotters help situate the rider on the saddle — adaptive saddles are available for special needs — and then the volunteer horse leaders, side walkers and instructors head out into the ring where various stations are set up for riders to take part in lessons geared toward their needs.
Some lessons teach sign language while others teach skills through tossing oversized dice with riders completing a specified task depending on the roll.
Each lesson plan is created specific to the rider’s needs. There are riders who are autistic, while others may have physical or emotional disabilities or a combination of disabilities, Kelly said.
Unique to the program is that the lead instructor, Karen Kurtz, is certified in therapeutic riding in Pennsylvania and at the national level, as well, Kelly said. Three other instructors with the program are on the third stage of certification.
There are hundreds of Blair County residents who could benefit from the program, she said, but it is limited on the space and number of horses available.
There are six horses used in the program, with another in training, Kelly said, adding that there are a lot of wonderful horses in stables, but a very select few qualify in temperament and attitude for the program.
A calm, consistent, sturdy horse is needed. One that won’t flinch at loud noises, at the sight of a wheelchair, walker, crutches or braces.
There are some requirements for riders in the program, too, Kelly said. Riders must be at least 5 years old and all riders must wear a helmet. Long pants are also required, “even if it’s 90 degrees.” There is also a weight limit of 165 pounds, due to emergency dismount procedures. The staff and volunteers must be able to get a rider off a horse quickly and safely in an emergency situation, she explained.
Kelly gets referrals and inquiries about the program daily, but the waiting list is quite long and very few slots open up each year, she said. There are a few new riders this season, she said, who have been on the list for more than a year.
“Once they’re in the program, they don’t want to leave,” she said.
Horses are non-judgmental, Kelly said. They accept the riders and their calm demeanor is calming to everyone around them.
Through consistency, lesson plans and games, the program “exercises the mind as well as the body,” Kelly said. That consistency is especially important for riders with autism or emotional disabilities.
For those unable to walk, the horse provides a workout for unused muscles.
“The horse provides the gait” that a person who is confined to a wheelchair can’t otherwise do, she said.
Riding is especially good for people who have disabilities such as cerebral palsy, like Kelly’s daughter, Erin, because they have extremely tight muscles all the time.
But, after a few minutes on a horse, their muscles relax, Kelly said.
Sidewalkers, who hold on to a rider while in the saddle, marvel that “they can feel the tightness relax,” Kelly said.
Riding keeps their muscles in shape, she said. “We all need exercise no matter what. It’s nice the horse can do that for them.”
The program is much needed in the community, Seeya said, that’s why Dreams Go On has its own dreams for the future.
Currently, the program rents space at Lake View Stables, 1401 Turkey Valley Road, Hollidaysburg.
But, a couple of years ago, DGO was able to purchase 14.5 acres of land, also along Turkey Valley Road. The land is waiting to be developed into a facility geared to the therapeutic riding program.
With more space, more horses could be added and with more horses, more riders could benefit from the program, Kelly said.
“The potential is there, and the need is definitely there,” she said. The hope is to break ground this year on the new facility.
Several fundraisers are slated in the coming months, including the annual Lehman Engineers trail ride, held in October at Canoe Creek State Park. The Strike Back Against Autism bowling tournament and armchair horse races are also being planned.
Dreams Go On will host a volunteer training day beginning at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 19, in the barn at Lake View Stables, 1401 Turkey Valley Road, Hollidaysburg.
There is always a need for volunteers, program director Debbie Kelly said, and she’s found that the volunteers get just as much out of the program as the riders do.
Always upbeat, Kelly added, “just show up” for those who may have just found out about the volunteer opportunities.
Forms are available online at DreamsGoOn.com under forms/volunteers, but she will also have forms available that can be filled out on site.
The therapeutic horseback riding program is for Blair County residents, ages 5 through adult, with emotional and/or physical challenges, Kelly said.
Those who volunteer get just as much of a workout as the riders do, Kelly said, adding people can save money on a gym membership and volunteer instead.
“It’s therapeutic to pull horses out just to groom,” she added as more encouragement for local residents to think about volunteering.
In addition, the program partners with Saint Francis, Penn State Altoona and area high schools whose students need volunteer service hours.
“We have people who have horse experience,” Kelly said, but added that the program offers volunteer training throughout the year.
While some people like to do the sidewalking part, others learn to be horse leaders. But, no matter the position, everyone has one shared job.
“We are all pooper scoopers,” Kelly said with a laugh. “It’s just a regular day at the office.”
More information about the program can be found at DreamsGoOn.org.