Nancy Harrison, the CEO of Colorado Springs Therapeutic Riding Center, remembers the moment she decided to start the nonprofit organization. She had given horseback riding lessons for years, sometimes to people with special needs, when she witnessed a moment that not only changed her life, but others.
“I was working with Joshua, an 8-year-old boy who had Down syndrome,” Harrison said. “He always rode a horse named Pal, who was a great riding horse but didn’t like to be messed with in his pen. And he didn’t like to come to the gate when people wanted him to. Well, I saw Joshua go over to the gate one day and call to Pal — and Pal came running. I couldn’t believe it. I always knew they had a bond but didn’t know it was so special.”
That’s when Harrison decided she wanted to focus on therapeutic riding lessons for people with special needs. She found a need for therapeutic riding in the community and talked to an attorney in 2008 about setting up a nonprofit.
“We started with three kids and grew quickly,” she said. “We’ve never had to advertise; it’s all word of mouth. The parents of these kids are pretty connected.”
The horses connect with the kids, too.
“Pal rode differently with Joshua on his back,” Harrison said. “He walked more cautiously. Cutter is the same way. He can tell when a rider might be more vulnerable.”
Cutter is the horse that has helped change the life of Aidan, a 7-year-old with Down syndrome.
“Aidan’s been riding here about three years,” said his mother, Sally Boyd. “It’s opened him up to us. He’s very expressive now and can describe things to us. What we noticed immediately was how his speech increased. He talks more, uses longer sentences and has more vocabulary. To see him succeed shows me how strong he is and how he’s gained confidence.”
Boyd gives credit to Cutter.
“We were amazed how confident Aidan was on this huge animal,” she said. “It calms him down to be on Cutter. It focuses him, even when he’s having a bad day.”
Harrison said the nonprofit’s annual operating budget of about $95,000 comes from “a lot of sponsorships and fundraisers.” All who apply to the school are accepted.
“I put all the money back into the program to help with scholarships so people can ride,” Harrison said. “Horse care isn’t cheap, but we’re making it.”
The school, at 3254 Paseo Road on the southwestern edge of Palmer Park, has 20 horses and provides private, 30-minute lessons for 169 riders ranging in age from 2 to 60. There are five instructors, all certified to work with people with special needs.
Jamie Harrison, 26, who is Nancy’s daughter, is Aidan’s instructor.
“Aidan is very engaged with Jamie,” Boyd said. “He talks about her and Cutter during the week before he rides on Friday. To Aidan, this is called ‘Ride Cutter.’”
Nancy Harrison said the natural gait of a horse mimics the human walk.
“The horses bond with the kids,” she said. “A lot of kids can’t play soccer or baseball, but the horses don’t judge. Riding gives the kids so much confidence.”
The equine-assisted therapy has helped twin sisters, one of whom has cerebral palsy, giving them an activity to do together while sharing their love of horses.
“This place does magic,” Boyd said. “It’s amazing to see how these kids change when they get on the horses.”