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Equestrian program therapeutic for riders, Boys and Girls Ranch youth

Therapeutic Riding Program - Billings Montana

Mary Mitzel kicked up a small cloud of dust as she weaved around a handful of people and raced up to a small milk chocolate-colored horse tethered to the wall.

“I have to say goodbye to Lena before I leave,” she said loudly before giving the horse a quick hug. “Goodbye, Lena.”

Mitzel had spent the better part of the previous hour, as well as most Tuesday nights in the weeks and months before, riding Lena around the Yellowstone Boys and Girls Ranch’s Bill and Anita Jones Equestrian Center.

The Tuesday sessions are part of Eagle Mount’s equestrian program. The program, held at the large barn off of Hesper Road and 72nd Street West, gives people with disabilities a little extra activity and sharpens their horseback riding skills.

“There’s a lot of different benefits that people might not see right away with this,” said Carrie McMullen, a Rocky Mountain College student who runs the equestrian program.

Eagle Mount is a nonprofit organization that offers recreational programs to people with disabilities, whether intellectual or physical. It serves about 400 people in the region with the help of an estimated 350 volunteers and includes programs such as golf, swimming, skiing and bicycling.

The equestrian program has been among Eagle Mount’s offerings for more than a decade and represents a partnership between the group and the Boys and Girls Ranch, which provides mental health support to children and their families.

The Tuesday sessions aren’t your typical riding lesson. They are more of a therapeutic conversation and a group activity.

“He just loves it so much,” said Carla Hellan as she watched her 11-year-old son, Logan, ride. “You can just see he’s meshed really well here. It’s a good bonding thing for him.”

After helping the riders mount — the program is equipped to get people of all ages, with a wide range of disabilities, up and riding — a Boys and Girls Ranch youth leads the horse while volunteers are on either side of the horse, as support and to chat with the rider.

Tarra and Willie Thomas, of Billings, watched their daughter, 8-year-old Emma, on a Tuesday in October. Wearing a helmet and thick, brightly-colored coat, the girl bounced along with the help of a Boys and Girls Ranch youth, who talked to her and calmed her down a few times when she became upset.

Tarra Thomas said they have noticed improvements in Emma’s tactile defensiveness — a condition that leads her to react negatively to some stimulus usually considered harmless or non-irritating to others. Emma perks up when the time to ride approaches.

“She looks forward to it every week,” Tarra Thomas said. “She gets excited about the word ‘pony.’”

McMullen said the riders benefit from the sessions, many without even realizing it.

Riding offers a solid core and balance workout, especially beneficial to those using wheelchairs because it uses many of the same muscles used in walking. And the interaction with the horses can help with emotional and anxiety issues.

“The thing that a lot of people find is that they’re able to connect with their horses because there’s no judgement,” McMullen said. “They can really open up to the horses and tell them whatever they want and it’s OK. A lot of people are very easily connected to the horses. Horses communicate through physical touch, and a lot of people respond to that.”

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