The first time Aiden Roy rode a horse, he couldn’t walk, wasn’t using one of his arms very well and had little to no balance.
Now, five years after joining the New Kingdom Trail Riders equine therapy program, the 8-year-old with cerebral palsy has no trouble sitting up on his horse, using both arms to guide it and confidently commanding it to move along.
The program, now in its 27th year, has grown from a small, six-student operation to having more than 60 mentally and physically handicapped children and adults attending classes four nights a week.
“He can do things that children with cerebral palsy can’t do,” said Aiden’s mother, Megan Roy, of Donahue, Iowa. “He jumps, he runs, he’s learning to ride a bike and sort of learning to Rollerblade.”
The program, currently housed at Schone’s Friendship Farm in Milan, is a long drive for the Roys, but Megan Roy said the difference it has made in her son’s life is worth it.
“He likes three things: baseball, Boy Scouts and this,” she said. “Other than that, there’s not a lot he can do. No competitive sports or anything like that, so this is his thing.”
Barb Clauson, executive director and head instructor, said the program is the only one of its kind within 50 miles of the Quad-Cities.
She said it has come a long way from the first year when a head instructor had to back out two weeks before the inaugural class and Clauson had to step in and take charge.
“At that point, my horse skills were limited,” Clauson said. “I had taught neighborhood kids the year before, and that was my teaching experience.”
But the self-described horse lover couldn’t stand the thought of getting rid of the program.
“When I was young, I was a horse lover, and I never had the opportunity to ride a horse except on my birthday once a year,” she said. “I knew if I ever got a horse that I’d like to do something about some other child because there’s 100,000 other ones just like me that didn’t have the opportunity to ride.”
There are classes geared toward adults, riding competition, advanced beginner riders and entry-level riders.
Theresa Cannavo, of Blue Grass, Iowa, has been a volunteer instructor with the trail riders for 20 years.
During her classes, Cannavo focuses on getting the students to sharpen both their physical and mental abilities by asking them mundane questions about the date or the president while also controlling horse movement.
Students have to throw rings onto color-coded cones or navigate through obstacles all the while Cannavo exhorts them to challenge themselves.
“It really gets them to think,” she said. “Sometimes, it gets them to relax, too.”
Cannavo, whose booming voice commands attention as she strides around the dirt ring, makes up several games on the spot during sessions with her students.
In a recent class, Christopher DeMay, 13, East Moline, whose attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder makes focusing on simple tasks challenging, strains impatiently against his horse when Cannavo walks up to hand him several large plastic rings to hold.
But he answers each of her rapid-fire questions precisely and smiles when she tells him to command his horse to “walk on.”
As he excitedly moves away, surrounded on three sides by volunteers who help guide his horse, Cannavo moves on to Aiden, gently reminding him to sit up straight and hold his reins in both hands.
She said the program was necessary for people who are often at a disadvantage in school or the workplace.
“It provides an outlet for these children to do things that they normally don’t have access to,” Cannavo said. “I know in their minds they’re thinking, ‘I know I can do this, and I know other kids can’t do this,’ so that’s really cool.”
Both Clauson and Cannavo said the program also can be therapeutic for the volunteers.
Each spring, the trail riders have a big training session for prospective volunteers who run the gamut from horse-crazy youth to older horse owners to people who have never been near a horse.
“We’ll teach horse psychology,” Clauson said. “Most people are uncomfortable, because they don’t know what a horse will do, but if they understand that the horse will talk to us through their body language, then nothing is really a surprise and you can tell what a horse will do most of the time.”
Cannavo said she regrets not being able to give more time to the program and said it was a rewarding way to spend her time.
“I would recommend it to anybody who has a stressful job or a stressful life,” Cannavo said. “Volunteer for this program because it really takes every worry out of your mind. All you’re concentrating on is developing the physical and mental needs of these children.”
For Nadia Schwartz, her 5-year-old Gianna Schwartz uses the program. Even though the six-month sessions are wrapping up as the weather cools, she is looking ahead for what the next summer of riding can do for her daughter.
Gianna, who has dysplasia in the lower half of her body, uses the program to strengthen her core muscles and, on occasion, one-up her five siblings.
“It’s hard for her to keep up with her brothers, but this is her thing,” Nadia Schwartz said. “This is what she’s doing, and she’s the only one that can do it.”