By Bryan Dooley
Karly becomes very emotional when remembering her friend, Tony. He had many jobs, but he loved his work at Riverwood more than any other. Tony offered physical and emotional support to anyone who needed it, especially to Karly. There love is still palpable, even though Tony left this physical world. This description seems to fit a remarkable human being, but the surprising thing is that Tony was a magnificent draft horse, a gentle giant, who touched the lives of all who knew him.
This is a story often heard at Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center, a 53-acre, premier accredited equestrian center, located in Tobaccoville. A picture of serenity, Riverwood offers a large barn, which houses a 60’ by 120’ indoor arena for year round activities, a classroom with an observation window, offices, five horse stalls, feed room and a well-stocked tack room.
Riverwood’s founder, Susan Hubbard, explains how Riverwood began.
“It mostly came from my passion for horses,” said Hubbard. “I studied equestrian studies in the 1970’s and then later became a registered nurse. It just seemed like a good idea to combine the two. Horses had a large impact on me throughout my childhood. I got together with a local pediatric physical therapist and we started with eight of her clients that had Cerebral Palsy and it just took off from there.”
Riverwood offers a variety of therapies, including Therapeutic Horseback Riding, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, and Equine Assisted Learning. They also have an Outreach program.
Their mission is to use Equine assisted activities for contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social well-being of children and adults with special needs.
The staff and volunteers witness the benefits of these therapies. Lindsay Saunders, former rider and current volunteer, has fond memories of her experiences at Riverwood.
“I remember the first time I ever got to trot on the horse I rode (his was called Treymore),” said Saunders. “For a seven year old, it was exhilarating! My favorite part was always the trail rides. I have seen children who are nonverbal, say their first words and children who are nonambulatory, move with more independence. Great things happen there every day!”
Aliza Mcllwain, Instructor, recounts similar recent experiences. She spoke freely about participants communicating for the first time both verbally and through gesture.
“We’ve had one student that has been riding for the past year, who has a variety of physical challenges, including fatiguing easily, tight muscles and being non-verbal,” said Mcllwain. “One day, out of the blue, he pointed to indicate that he wanted the horse to walk on, so now he uses that all the time.”
Volunteer, Sally Bridges, spoke about the same young man.
“He has consistently improved this command over the last two months pairing his hand movement with an unforgettable grin,” said Bridges. “I try to visualize his smile every time I need a happy moment throughout the week. His smile and those of his peers keep me going in the worst of times.”
Hubbard describes the joy she experiences as the founder.
“Not everyone gets to go to work and see that kind of achievement on a regular basis,” said Hubbard. “It’s wonderful.”
Riders are not the only ones who benefit. The volunteers derive just as much from the experience. Some even say that volunteering at Riverwood is their therapy. Riverwood staff tries to pair the same rider with the same horse and staff member. This creates strong bonds between the humans and the horse.
Bridges explains why she has chosen to spend part of her retirement volunteering at Riverwood.
“Because of my background as a former teacher of students with Physical Challenges, I can appreciate the motor control and communication skills that each student gains during a series of Riverwood lessons, said Bridges. “ My life has been enriched by volunteering at this fantastic Riding Center. I know that every student benefits from the magic of the Riverwood experience.”
Riverwood welcomes new riders and volunteers. The volunteer process is easy to begin. More information can be found on the website: http://www.riverwoodtrc.org/volunteer.aspx.
Given Saunders deep connection to the center, she eloquently expresses the relationship of all in the community.
“I believe that Riverwood seeks to empower everyone who comes to their program, riders and families alike,” said Saunders. “Riverwood seeks to enrich participants’ life experience through activities that are physically and mentally challenging, teaching all involved about the power of diligence, courage, and a good laugh.”
Other important members of the community not yet mentioned are the horses. Riverwood has been a permanent home to thirty horses and has seventeen currently working. The center values them for their entire life. Hubbard explains why.
“Bonds between human and horse are powerful and accepting,” said Hubbard. “Horses are non-judging; they give immediate emotional feedback, give comfort, and push people beyond their pre-concieved limits. We, at Riverwood, hope to be an example. We believe in high quality care for our horses and our riders. We value our diverse community and the importance of accessibility.”
Relative newcomer and Development Director, Erin Smith, already senses what makes Riverwood special.
“Personally, I think it’s important for everyone, including people with disabilities to do something that kind of pushes their limits and maybe do something they didn’t think they could do for themselves,” said Smith. “I think that is important for them and for everyone else to realize and horseback riding at Riverwood is certainly something out of the ordinary.”
The center’s twentieth anniversary is this September. Two events are scheduled. BB&T Ballpark will host the first event on September 18th and Riverwood will host a big celebration on September 19th. Donations of money and/or time are always welcome.
To learn more about Riverwood and activities at the Center you can visit the following sites and social media:
Bryan Dooley is a graduate of Guilford College, where while earning a degree in History, he wrote for the The Guilfordian as a Staff Writer from 2011 to 2013, a Senior Writer from 2012 to 2013, and worked as a Diversity Coordinator. He now is a journalist and columnist with CCD. Bryan, who himself has cerebral palsy, is also an advocate for people with disabilities.