Back in the Saddle: Part 5 – Sidewalker

I have had the pleasure of volunteering as a sidewalker at Cincinnati Therapeutic Riding and Horsemanship (CTRH) for the past two years. During this time, I’ve worked closely with friend and fellow sidewalker, Joan Lenczicki. She is the one who connected me with those who run the Miniature Horse Outreach, and I will be forever grateful. You can read more about that program here. Please join me in welcoming Joan to the blog.

Hello, Joan. Thank you for talking with us. How did you get started as a volunteer with an equine therapy program?

I was a special needs aide for Milford Schools for fourteen years. During those years, I worked with the elementary children all the way to high school kids. I was with kids who were diagnosed with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and other multiple disabilities, including behavior problems. I knew about the CTRH program because it is only ten minutes from my home.

How long have you been volunteering as a sidewalker?

I first started volunteering at CTRH about ten years ago with the evening classes after work. I volunteered only a couple of sessions because I had other commitments. I knew when I retired four years later I would go back to CTRH and volunteer again. I didn’t know much about horses but wanted to continue to work with people with special needs. It has been six years, and I still enjoy it.

What is your favorite part of your role as a sidewalker?

My favorite part of volunteering is watching the students you are working with become more independent and watching the joy on their faces as as they ride and have more control over a majestic animal. It is also amazing to watch some of the smaller kids have no fear of such a big animal. During a hippotherapy class, these young kids can turn around and ride backwards with no fear.

Volunteering as a side walker also gives me opportunities to help in other ways. I have been helping with the mini horse visits to area hospice centers, special educational schools, and assisted living places. The look on peoples’ faces when we visit with the mini horses is priceless. They are all so appreciative. I also help when the Epilepsy Alliance visits. These women come to CTRH and get to groom horses and lead them around the ring. They play games with the horses. It brings a smile to my face every time they come.

What is your least favorite part of your role as a sidewalker?

My least favorite part of volunteering is when a student doesn’t come back for any number of reasons. They are all so special.

What has been the most rewarding experience/memory since you’ve started volunteering in equine therapy?

The most rewarding part of volunteering is the friendships I am making with other volunteers and the riders. Some of the riders and volunteers have been coming for years. I am amazed by some of the more experienced riders that can ride all by themselves. They may have a leader near them, but they are able to trot around the ring by themselves. It is also rewarding to watch some of our riders in the morning class participate in Special Olympics. They must do specific tasks on the horse without any guidance from the leader. It is exciting to see the ribbons that they have won. 

The most rewarding part of volunteering is the friendships I am making with other volunteers and the riders.

What qualities do your favorite horses possess? 

All the horses at CTRH have been evaluated on temperament and have been picked to be a good match with their riders. All the horses at CTRH have a good disposition and can handle all sorts of issues that a rider might have. 

From your perspective, what benefits does equine therapy offer a rider? A rider’s family?

Equine therapy has so many benefits for a rider. A rider has to be focused on the horse and not worry about what’s going on around them. It helps their body with balance and core work. They are responsible for getting whatever equipment is needed for their ride. They learn to take care of horses by brushing them. I think the parents enjoy watching their child have a rewarding and enjoyable ride. 

Do you have any tips or tricks you care to share that you’ve found helpful when working with riders who may be uninterested, noncompliant, or scared and nervous?

There aren’t really any tips I have but I try to be engaged with the rider and be positive and encouraging. I always like to tell them what a good job they are doing. I learn something new from each rider, and I hope I have brought some joy into their lives.

I learn something new from each rider, and I hope I have brought some joy into their lives.

Anything else you’d care to share?

I find my volunteering at CTRH very rewarding. Not only do I get to work with all kinds of people, but I get to be with such a beautiful animal. I am also learning how to care for these animals.

This is wonderful, Joan! I echo your words in saying the most rewarding part of volunteering with this equine therapy program for me has been the friendships I’ve made with the riders and volunteers. Thank you for sharing your experiences as a sidewalker with us.

Learn more about CTRH here. An online search for “equine therapy programs near me” will provide a quick list of programs for those of you who wish to get involved in your own communities. As always, thank you for reading!