Grantee SPOTLIGHT: Riding with HEART

GRANTEE SPOTLIGHT is a recurring feature here at TAAFF.org. This is the second in our series (view the first here). Keep checking back for new Spotlight features!

A CONVERSATION WITH 
Christina Baxter, Executive Director
Riding with HEART

Christina with Stan, a therapy horse at RwH

Christina with Stan, a therapy horse at RwH

This past June, we visited 2015 grant recipient Riding with HEART (RwH) to see their Equine Assisted Learning program in action! The beautiful piece of property that this organization calls home, located in Pittstown, offers clear views of the surrounding farmland and a peaceful respite for any visitor…but that is just the beginning. With a philosophy that horses can be a powerful stimulus for therapy and learning, the staff and volunteers (and beautiful horses!) at RwH are working hard to improve quality of life for many New Jersey residents.

Riding with HEART serves individuals throughout both Hunterdon County and the state of New Jersey through the facilitation of Equine Assisted Activities. As a PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) Member Center, RwH offers high-quality programs aimed at improving the abilities of individuals with physical, cognitive, and emotional setbacks. This year, we have been proud to support RwH’s Equine Assisted Learning Therapy program. After watching a group of young students light up as they participated in a morning of EALT activities led by Executive Director Christina Baxter, we knew our next Spotlight would be on RwH. Our Consulting Administrator, Molly Harper, asked Christina some questions about her involvement with the organization and its educational mission.

Molly: When did you begin working at RwH? What is your background with the organization?

Christina: My journey here at Riding with HEART began when my daughter Kelly needed volunteer hours for her church confirmation in 1998 and I was just her mom, dropping her off. Back then, the program was part of the Hunterdon County Educational Services Commission (HCESC) and was located on a small farm next to Hunterdon Medical Center. They grew out of that barn and moved the program to the current facility in Pittstown…and so began my time volunteering. In 2006, HCESC dropped the therapeutic riding program due to budgetary reasons, but a group of concerned individuals who saw the value of the program formed a Board of Directors. A new program, called Dreams Come True Therapeutic Riding, was formed using the same facility, staff, and horses. In 2011, it became apparent that the therapeutic riding field of services was expanding and the field of programs being offered was becoming more diverse. That led to the current name – Riding with HEART – being adopted. HEART is an acronym for Hunterdon Equine Assisted Recreation and Therapy.

When the program moved to Pittstown and I would bring my daughter to volunteer, I thought I was going to wait in the car and read a magazine or do homework, as I was back in school for Special Education. Soon, I was coerced out of the minivan and began volunteering with my daughter. At that time, I was a full time special education teaching assistant in the Flemington Raritan School District, working with the Multiple Disabilities class. I soon found that my many years of riding lessons through my childhood and teenage years, along with my special education experience, were a perfect fit for therapeutic riding. I became a NARHA-Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor in 2004. In 2011, I left the school district and became a full-time employee at RwH, taking over the leadership role when the former Executive Director left to have her second child.

Molly: For those unfamiliar with RwH, what services do you provide?

Christina: We offer a variety of services to adults and children with physical, cognitive, and/or emotional disabilities, as well as to at-risk youth. We also try to support their families [through these services]. The majority of what we do is therapeutic riding (now called Adaptive Horseback Riding). A recreational activity, it focuses on riders’ physical or cognitive abilities and teaches horseback riding skills to help the rider achieve goals she or he may have with regard to those abilities. We have one rider now who wanted to learn to ride a bike. Through horseback riding, he was able to build his muscle strength and balance and quickly transferred those skills to learning to ride his bike.

We also have other programs. RwH has an occupational therapist who uses the horse’s multidimensional movement to enhance her therapy outcomes. This is called Hippotherapy (“Hippo” is Greek for “horse”). We also offer Equine Assisted Learning, where educational goals can be incorporated into working with and riding horses. Our Mommy and Me program is for preschoolers with special needs – they sing songs and fingerplay while riding ponies to promote language and fine and gross motor skills. We also train volunteers and introduce them to our programming. They are a major part of the program, along with a work study program for adults with special needs and adjudicated youth.

Molly: What sets you apart from other therapy programs?

Christina: RwH allows the riders to experience the whole barn experience. We encourage them to do the little things like brush their horses. We don’t want the program to be too clinical, but we want to give the participants the programs they need. What sets us apart from other equine-assisted therapy programs is a welcoming family atmosphere where people’s abilities are celebrated and differences accepted. We offer a whole equestrian experience. The riders get to work with the horses in the barn if they so choose.

The bond between child and animal

The bond between child and animal

Molly: Do many programs like yours exist in the local area, or in New Jersey?

Christina: There are a few other equine assisted therapy programs in the area. Riding with HEART is a member of PATH and the New Jersey chapter of HRH. You can find a program in most counties in New Jersey.

Molly: What can you tell us about the children you serve that we might not realize?

Christina: They are just like any other child. Kids are kids. Kids like to play and have fun. Play is any child’s natural way of learning. So, I play games while teaching to help them learn in a fun natural way that keeps them motivated. We focus on our abilities rather than our disabilities. Many people assume that if someone is non-verbal, that person cannot communicate. That is not the case. You just have to find the way that they can communicate with the horse. Sometimes, a rider might tell the horse to walk by moving their seat in the saddle.

Molly: Can you describe a typical day at your job?

Christina: There are no typical days for me. For instance, yesterday I helped at the first day of summer camp sidewalking a novice rider; wrote curriculum; taught therapeutic riding lessons; replaced broken hoses on the washing machine; unclogged the toilet; spoke to a parent about equine assisted activities to see which was the best fit for her son; mentored an instructor-in-training; took care of a horse that got sick over the weekend; worked on our fundraising event; and answered emails and phone calls.

Molly: What goes into your work that the community might not always consider?

Christina: We are a small nonprofit, so I wear many hats. I need to know the ins and outs of not only the program and activities, but also the many different disabilities we engage with and how best to facilitate a successful riding lesson using many different techniques. I also know the particulars of our property and facility. For instance, when the washing machine hose broke, I needed to know where the main water turnoff was. I also need to know about horses and their care. In addition, we sit on thirty acres, and there is a lot of upkeep!

Molly: Tell me about your staff and volunteers. How do they help Riding with HEART?

Christina: My staff includes a barn manager/instructor, who graduated from Delaware Valley College where she studied equine science, and a part-time bookkeeper, who is retired from corporate America and a lifelong “horse person”.

In 2014, we had 128 volunteers that donated over 5,618 hours of service. Many are program volunteers that come on a weekly basis and assist in the lessons and barn. Our volunteers range in age from 12 to 65+. All volunteers, regardless of experience, must attend a volunteer training program. We also have a large group that comes every fall from Merial for a community service day. They are working each year on expanding our Sensory Garden.

Molly: What kind of qualities do you look for in a potential volunteer?

Christina: We look for volunteers that want to help others. We want people who love people and animals and who are willing to commit at least two hours a week to the program.

Volunteers working with one of RwH's students

Volunteers working with one of RwH’s students

Molly: What can a local community member do to help Riding with HEART?

Christina: There are many ways to help. We always need potential volunteers. Others can donate to the program through our website – the care and feeding of therapy horses along with the costs of programming is expensive! Our income covers only 49% of our annual costs. And of course, anyone is welcome to visit during one of our open houses and help spread the word about our program.

Molly: Tell me about any new programs you have or upcoming events you’re planning.

Christina: RwH is hosting its second annual Farm to Stable Fundraising Gala on Saturday, September 12. It features local chefs preparing locally-sourced food. The evening will also include a silent auction, live music, and a local artist showcasing her work.

We also hold tack sales twice a year, in October and again in March. 100% of the proceeds go into the program. The community is invited to donate items and also shop.

Program-wise, we are currently implementing HorsePower!, an equine-assisted learning program for teens. We are also looking into the possibility of collaborating with other nonprofits to bring services to the community.

HorsePower! participants

HorsePower! participants

Molly: Anything else you’d like to share about RwH?

Christina: RwH was founded on the belief that just because a person is differently-abled, that doesn’t mean that they can’t enjoy a full equestrian experience. We pride ourselves on being a very warm and welcoming place where a person’s differences are accepted. We strive to improve the lives a whole family, not just one person. And we adapt our programs to fit the needs of our community.

Riding with HEART on Facebook

Molly Harper (Consulting Administrator) and David Olekna (President) visit RwH

Molly Harper (Consulting Administrator) and David Olekna (President) visit RwH

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