Getting involved: agricultural students lead the way
By Brandy Looney
Photo by Lauren Guy
Samuel, age 4
Most student volunteers are attracted to THE CHAPS because of the interaction with horses and children. It also is an excellent experience to put on their resumes.
The horse slowly saunters up to the mounting block and waits for the rider to settle onto his strong, supporting back. He looks back at the child for guidance. The child grabs the reins and assumes control of the horse. She feels her body move as the horse lifts each leg to begin a slow trot.
While reading this description, did you imagine the rider having a disability? An organization called THE CHAPS (Therapy, Health, and Education through Children and Horses As PartnerS) is dedicated to providing therapeutic and recreational horseback riding to individuals with special needs ages three and up. To many children and adults, this program is exciting and a change from their everyday therapy. The students build a tight bond with the horses, staff members and volunteers while simultaneously working on physical, emotional and cognitive goals.
Mark Russell, Purdue University professor and member of THE CHAPS board and riding instructor, said that each week children from area schools are bussed in for during-school sessions in addition to the after-school lessons open to individual riders with disabilities. The riders learn a variety of skills in order to interact with the horses, such as grooming, tacking, stable management and equestrian skills. These skills are learned through classroom activities and riding lessons.
THE CHAPS program relies heavily on volunteer support from people within the community. Russell said the program usually needs at least eight volunteers each lesson. THE CHAPS has many volunteers from Purdue, but also looks to the surrounding communities for assistance. The program accepts volunteers ages 14 and up.
"Second only to the horse is our dependence on the volunteers," said Colleen Brady, Purdue professor, member of THE CHAPS advisory board and faculty advisor for the program. "They are vital to the existence of our program. It is by far a community effort. We are offering a tremendous opportunity for students to be part of a rewarding, amazing experience."
Melinda Wiggins, program director and volunteer coordinator, said, "The most significant aspect of our program is that the volunteers get to see how their help increases the progress the riders make while going through the lessons. It is really neat to see what abilities the riders have on horseback. It takes away some of the stereotypes associated with disabilities because on horseback the abilities of the riders are obvious, not their disabilities. It doesn't matter if the rider has two legs that function perfectly or do not. The horse provides the walking for the rider either way."
Wiggins said that there are a variety of lessons volunteers can choose to assist in, such as: horse care and feeding, horse exercising, leading the horses, assisting in lessons and classroom sessions or helping to prepare the activities for the riders. THE CHAPS needs assistance year round and especially in the summer time.
The volunteer slowly leads the horse as the child guides the reins lightly and molds to the movement of the horse. The volunteer looks back at the child; she looks so happy and confident. She thinks about how blessed she is to be part of this learning process.