By Linda White
The little dun Half-Arabian gelding may not look like much in the stall, but his credentials are more impressive than most horses of any breed can boast. Made Ya Look, as he is registered, has carried his riders to six gold medals in the Special Olympics. His owner, Nathalie Green, purchased him from his breeder as a 4-year-old in 2002, the year she launched T.R.A.I.L., the Therapeutic Riding Association, Inc. of Louisville. The operation is now called TRAIL Therapy Horses.
Ellie Rinehart-Troutman bred Made Ya Look. Troutman and her husband own Windy Meadows Farm, in La Grange, Ky. “We bred my daughter's palomino Shetland pony mare, Dawn, to our clients’ beautiful Traditio son, R-A Kuasar,” she explains. Her clients, Karen and Linda Hoeschele, had bought R-A Kuasar in 1993. A willowy bay stallion of pure Polish bloodlines, R-A Kuasar is out of the Negatraz daughter, Moderna (x *Mortissa, by Trypolis.) He was bred by Mosica Arabians and registered by Rose and Art Taylor, who bought his dam in foal to Traditio for their R-A Aloha Arabians.
“We were hoping for a small Half-Arabian that Tayler, my daughter, could show class ‘A’ in lead-line and walk-trot,” Rinehart-Troutman continues, “but while we waited for ‘Major’ to be born and grow up, Tayler fell in love with a purebred mare. And Major was naughty, as ponies can be, so he and Tayler never truly bonded.
“We gelded him when he was eight months old, and Nathalie took a shine to him. She helped me train him, and eventually purchased him. You know, of the many Arabians I have bred and raised, we are the most proud of him. His success is measured by the lives he has touched. I have trained, ridden and shown national champions, but none of them has ever made as much difference in this world as Major.”
Green’s T.R.A.I.L. program is designed to help riders, both adults and children, with a variety of special needs. These include, but are not limited to, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, spinal cord injuries and autism.
“And volunteers need not have had prior experience with horses,” she stresses. “They only have to have no fear of horses, and be willing to carry out the procedures and protocols I, the instructor, request.
“We assess each rider’s needs and capabilities, and design a riding program uniquely structured for that individual,” explains Green. “Ours is a therapeutic riding program created to enrich each rider’s life experience both within and beyond the T.R.A.I.L. program. “The healing an association with horses gives people with special needs has been proven time and again, in programs all over the world.”
Green’s own experience brings her “all over the world” references into sharp focus. The child of retired UPS executive Owen Green, a Bristol, England native and his wife, the former Janine Medard, of Toulouse, France, Nathalie only really learned to speak English 15 years ago. She grew up in Toulouse, where her family still has a home, has always ridden, and used to compete aboard hunters and jumpers. Her success with catch ridden mounts for owners throughout Europe caught the eye of Sheikh Mohammed, a Dubai Arabian horse breeder in Dubai.
“His daughter began riding in a handicapped program when she was seven,” Green begins. “Their religion dictated that his daughter’s instructor had to be a woman, so he hired me, but he first did research about therapeutic and handicapped riding, and learned that Mary Logsden, in Melbourne, Australia, was the world’s foremost authority on the subject. Among her many accomplishments was helping to train the Canadian Paralympic dressage team. When Sheikh Mohammed brought me to Dubai Mary told him, ‘Send her to me first,’ so I spent a year in Australia with her, learning the most effective therapeutic riding techniques.
“I stayed in Dubai for seven years,” she continues. Dubai is fairly open about western culture and tourism, but as I traveled in the Middle East I discovered that in many Islamic countries, Saudi Arabia, for example, Islamic law is very strict. Anyone of another faith has to have a work visitor’s visa to even come into the country. This accounts for the population’s cultural isolation.
“Then UPS sent Dad to Louisville, so Mother and I came with him. I started a therapeutic riding program at Rock Creek Riding Club, but had to close it down when their June horse show came around. I went to Randy Miller, with Jefferson County Public Schools’ special education department, and he helped me put the word out about my therapeutic riding program.
“All the time, I was looking for ways to make my program better, and trying to break things down to the fundamental level. I attended several Parelli seminars about natural horse training, and went to the Parelli campus in Florida. Pat Parelli has been a great teacher for me. He gave me great insight into communicating with horses –using body language, for example -and into taking riders and horses as they are when they come in, with no unrealistic expectations. With the Parelli method, one of my girl students and Lilly, one of my horses, even learned how to jump together.” Most of Green’s horses are Arabians or Half-Arabians like Made Ya Look, with one Thoroughbred named Batman (who has the Batman logo is on his stall sign) who came off the track; one Connemara pony, and a dappled chocolate Shetland named Beetlejuice (with a cartoon drawing of the Beetlejuice character from the film on his stall nameplate) for the smallest riders. The small saddle in the tack room is his.
“Most of the lessons I give are done on a 12-foot lead-line,” Green explains. “I only have two students who are able to ride independently. One is a boy with a severe anxiety disorder, and the other rider is mildly mentally retarded. To enter my students in Kentucky’s Special Olympics I had to send everything to Frankfort, the state capital, to NAHRA. [Note: North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, also known as NARHA and originally formed in 1969 is now the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, or PATH Intl.] The Special Olympics are held at the Kentucky Horse Park, in Lexington. In 2012 there were 72 riders altogether, with gold, silver and bronze Special Olympics medals awarded in nine different groups.
“I pay for transportation, stabling, bedding, feed and other expenses at the Special Olympics, and the parents of my kids who ride in Special Olympics pay me. There are grants and other funding for TRAIL Therapy Horses, which has non-profit status, but paying for Special Olympics can be hard for parents because it’s an extra expense.” Organizations for individuals with various disabilities and their families sometimes help with raising funds, as well.
TRAIL Therapy Horses is headquartered on the 43-acre farm she and her parents purchased in 2006 outside Simpsonville, Ky., a 40-minute drive east of Louisville, in Shelby County. The farm has good stabling, pastures and paddocks, a large outdoor arena, and an indoor arena with a limestone- and sandstone-based footing. A drag and a water truck are parked just outside, and the ring sports cavalades, a mailbox on a post, and poles on the ground for students to improve their riding skills for the Special Olympics’ obstacle courses. There is also a long ramp near the “people” door, for pushing wheelchairs up to a platform built at just the right height to simplify lifting students onto the saddled horses.
“We have 54 students and 86 volunteers,” says Green. “Volunteers are absolutely essential to this program, because some riders may need as many as three people to walk along with them and help them during their lessons. We have had summer camps for the past four years, which are very popular, and the kids thoroughly enjoy our social gatherings, like picnics and holiday parties.”
The walls of the clubhouse inside the horse barn are lined with bulletin boards displaying dozens of photographs of horses and happy children. There is a table with puzzles of varying degrees of difficulty on it, and a row of helmets. The tack room is filled with cutback, hunt seat and western saddles, and bridles, most of them with snaffle bits and running martingales. Everywhere we turn, there is evidence of a joyful collaboration among caring volunteers and professionals, special needs children, and the aware, good-thinking horses that carry them to life-enriching experiences beyond their imaginings.