By Taylor Renner
For many, horses are considered to be high-performance athletes and competitive partners, but sometimes their roles are much simpler than that — they’re teachers, healers and friends. These jobs, although they may seem small, have a much bigger impact and reward than winning any blue ribbon — something the North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center knows all too well.
The North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center (NCTRC) was founded in 1977 by Dot Kohlbach, Lou Paules and Debbie Lominac. When Dot moved to Durham, North Carolina, from her home in Scotland, where she was an active volunteer among the therapeutic riding center community, she looked for a program to join in her area but couldn’t find any. As a result, she decided to start her own.
Oldest Therapy Program in North Carolina
From its humble, grass-roots beginning, NCTRC is now settled at the spacious 28-acre Clearwind Farm in Mebane, North Carolina, and is a PATH Intl. (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) Premier Accredited Center. The center continues its 38-year legacy as the oldest therapeutic riding program in North Carolina, serving children and adults with special needs with the highest quality and professional care.
“We think it’s really special that our program has been in existence for as long as it has,” said Lara Katz, chair of the NCTRC Board of Directors. “We have at least five volunteers and instructors who have been with the program for over 20 years. We’re very fortunate to have people who have been with us for so long and continue to want to stay and grow with the program.”
NCTRC’s mission is to empower children and adults with physical, emotional, mental and social challenges to create active, healthier and more fulfilling lives through equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT).
“The accomplishments for each rider are different — some small and some large — but each and every accomplishment is a reason to celebrate!” said Jackie Cole, instructor for NCTRC for 28 years and currently volunteering as executive director.
The center offers both hippotherapy and therapeutic riding classes. Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational or speech therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement and is conducted by a licensed therapist. Therapeutic riding is focused more on acquiring riding skills and is conducted by a PATH-certified riding instructor.
Improvements in Clients
“Not every person we put on a horse will see miracle results but we do see pretty remarkable improvement in clients all the time,” said Lara. “Most of the time these kids are so tired of being dragged from one therapy session to another. But with hippotherapy, although they’re getting a physical therapy session just like they would in an office, they’re also getting to ride a pony! When they’re sitting on a pony, it doesn’t seem like physical therapy, even if they’re being asked to do the same things as they would be in their regular therapy sessions. I don’t doubt that’s part of the reason why we see such good results — because the clients are so enthusiastic about what they’re doing.”
In addition, the center holds a blended-abilities summer riding camp, a variety of workshops and will be expanding soon to offer equine-assisted psychotherapy.
“My favorite thing that we do is the blended abilities summer camp, which is a camp program for kids ages 5–12 with and without disabilities,” said Lara. “Sometimes I honestly question which group benefits more from this experience between the children with disabilities and the typically developing children. By the end of the week-long camp, I’d confidently say that if you asked, most of the kids wouldn’t classify the other campers according to whether they have disabilities or not — they always just become friends, and refer to them by name. This is also the only camp in the area where if a family has one child with disabilities and one without, both kids can go and participate in a summer camp together.”
NCTRC accepts clients of any age and disability that they can safely accommodate (physical, mental, social or emotional). The most common diagnosis that the NCTRC staff serves is autism spectrum disorder but they also serve clients with chromosomal/genetic disorders, cerebral palsy, cognitive impairment/developmental delay, traumatic brain injury and other neurological disorders. The center serves veterans as well.
The Difference in Lina
One client who has been particularly impacted by NCTRC is Lina Fitzgerald.
“My daughter, Lina, is 25 years old and has autism,” said Lina’s mother, Shannon Fitzgerald. “I can’t tell you how much of a difference NCTRC has made. We’ve been through all kinds of therapy and special education classes and never before has she had an experience that was so positive and successful. When they ask her to do something that may be challenging for her, she’s always happy and willing to try it and we’ve never had that experience with her in any other therapy class.”
NCTRC has not only helped Lina improve in the saddle but also in her own personal growth.
“I’ve seen a huge change in Lina’s self-esteem and the way she carries herself,” said Shannon. “I can really tell that she has grown in her feelings about herself and her confidence, and to me that’s such a gift. You can’t really give that self-confidence to someone — they have to find it themselves. We just feel so incredibly blessed that we finally found NCTRC. Sometimes while we’re there with Lina, people will ask me if my daughter is always that happy — and it’s not that she’s unhappy when she’s not there — but when she’s on that horse she doesn’t stop smiling the whole time.”
Lina also competed in the Special Olympics North Carolina Equestrian Tournament in September and won gold medals in both equitation and working trails with the help of her favorite therapy horse, Ruby. She even helped bring home a silver medal in the team relay class with other NCTRC riders.
“It’s truly an amazing experience to see all that they give to their riders,” said Shannon. “Sometimes I wonder if they even realize how much they impact these kids and adults. I don’t know if it’s only clear unless you’re on the receiving end, but they really change lives and I don’t know what we’d do without NCTRC.”
Great Place To Call Home
No matter who you are, where you come from or what you can do, NCTRC is a place that everyone can call home.
“Whether someone is a donor, volunteer, board member, staff member or parent, all of those roles contribute to providing the service to the client,” said Lara. “I want everyone to feel appreciated in the role they play and the experience they bring to the organization. We want to be a place where everyone is valued for who they are and what they’re capable of doing — clients, volunteers, instructors — everyone.”
Even Lara admits, after working at the center for 23 years as a volunteer, instructor and board member, she’s often wondered whether or not her time has come to an end at NCTRC.
“Every couple of years I think about moving on from NCTRC to volunteer for different causes, but I’ve never been able to leave,” said Lara. “I’m just a sucker for the magic of it all. I’ve never seen anything else that offers such remarkable benefits for people with such a wide variety of disabilities. Nothing can compete with what I’ve seen with putting kids on horses. I see a smiling child on a horse and I just can’t see myself volunteering my time anywhere else.”