First Posted: 5/13/2014
A celebratory atmosphere surrounded the attendees at the Family Fun Day hosted by Oak Leaf Therapeutic Horsemanship Center in Nicholson on Saturday, May 10.
Founded in 2007, patrons of the horsemanship center are predominantly children and adults with special needs.
The riders, off all ages, demonstrated to their parents and siblings the routines they learned from their trainer, founder and Executive Director of Oak Leaf, Loretta Dragon.
“ “I got interested in it because I had seen other therapeutic programs and I realized what I could do to help children that were having difficulties and the program actually grew into some adults,” she said. “My age range is from three to sixty-five!”
In order to earn her certification, Dragon needed to teach classes of four to six students, however, one on one lessons suited her better.
“I do private lessons, I wanted to have a program that I could do individuals and potentiate what they needed or help them achieve what they wanted to achieve, and you can’t do that in groups of four or six,” she said.
Dealing mostly with autistic children, Dragon set out to create a welcoming haven for them.
“We built specifically for Autistic children, there’s no florescent lighting, we did a concrete floor, I did mats down the center for the horses and wheelchairs,” she said. “We specifically made the front of the stalls wide open so that they can see in and the horses can see out.”
Despite the major focus on autistic children, Dragon also teaches children with ADD, ADHD, Cerebral Palsy, Down syndrome, and overly-stressed college students.
“We’ve been coming to Oak Leaf for about a year and a half,” said Maggie Miller, mother of eight-year-old Sarah. “She has lots of issues, medical history, cognitive ability is challenging, gross motor is challenging, and this has been a tremendous improvement in her life, in her confidence, in her self-esteem, in her physical ability to just be a kid.”
Sarah is an infant Leukemia survivor who is over five years post treatment.
Siblings of children with physical or mental challenges are also encouraged to take lessons from “Miss Loretta” .
“What’s nice is usually the child that’s having difficulty goes home and says to the able-bodied brother or sister, ‘I do this or I did that’ so that gives them competition because now their brother or sister is stepping up to bat with the help of the horse to becoming equal with them,” Dragon said. “No matter who is riding everybody is on an equal plane up there.”
After a lunch of pizza and salads, all the children received ribbons for their hard work and individual improvements.
One of those students was 14-year-old Graice Brock, whose sister, Olivia, has been a volunteer at Oak Leaf for three years and has worked alongside her sister.
“ Gracie, she has Chromium 22-C, she’s not supposed to be able to process more than one or two things at a clip, and when you watch her do these patterns today you can see that she actually can memorize things,” Dragon said.
Oak Leaf is largely run with the help of volunteers; most of whom seem to enjoy it as much as the children. Donned in green “Oak Leaf” T-shirts, the volunteers assist with and oversee the children’s performances. The majority of the volunteers have been at the center for a year or more. Brittany Goren, 21, has helped at the farm for two and a half years,
“I’ll be here for the rest of my life!” she said laughing.
Spirits were high as the day came to a close. Parents of each child praised the work Dragon was able to accomplish.
“All the kids here have worked really hard with Oak Leaf and Miss Loretta, and today is about showing their friends and family how far they’ve come,” Maggie Miller said.
Dragon’s reward for her work with the children is seeing it all come together.
“I enjoy doing what I do, and I love watching the kids gain confidence, self-esteem, learn things, and it’s just great,” she said. “I just love watching these kids blossom. When you see those benefits happen it just fills your heart.”