For disabled kids, it’s heaven on horseback

LANGLEY — Peanut terrified Kristen Riley.

She refused to go near the gentle Shetland pony, though he is just 3 feet tall.

When volunteers at the HOPE therapeutic riding program finally managed to plop her on the horse’s back, she was too weak to hold herself up.

Two weeks shy of her third birthday, Kristen couldn’t sit on her own.

She couldn’t speak more than a word or two at a time and was unable to say “Peanut.”

She couldn’t hold Peanut’s reins.

But she could ride.

Soon, she was hooked.

Like scores of other people facing medical challenges or traumatic experiences, Kristen found her niche through Langley-based Horsemanship Opportunities for Potential Equestrians. The program pairs adults and children with horses, a trained-instructor and a cadre of volunteers.

Since the 1950s, therapists have used horses to help treat people with physical disabilities. The rhythmic movement of horses is similar to the human gait and often people with physical disabilities improve in flexibility, balance and muscle strength when they ride, according to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.

People with mental or emotional disabilities sometimes form bonds with the horses that can lead to increased confidence, patience and self-esteem.

“It’s really amazing,” said HOPE’s only paid instructor, Miriam Burk, 42, who became involved in therapeutic riding after a leg injury left her unable to walk for more than an hour a day.

“When someone’s been in a wheelchair or has spent most of their life looking up to people, and you put them on a horse — for the first time in their life they look eye to eye with people or maybe even adults look up to them. It’s empowering.”

During weekly lessons at Island County Fairgrounds in Langley, Kristen came to like Peanut. As her vocal abilities improved, she began to ask for the horse by name. When instructors tried to move her onto a bigger horse, she cried for Peanut and was reunited with him.

“It’s so delightful to see a special needs kid do something regular kids do,” said Kristen’s mom, Donna Ertel Riley, as she watched Kristen ride Peanut around a cone. “She may never ride a bicycle. We have put her in the pool and she loves the water, but I don’t know how long it will be before she swims. But she can do this.”

Teresa Stubrud commutes by car and ferry all the way from Lake Stevens so her 8-year-old son, Austin, can ride with HOPE. Austin has Down syndrome and battled leukemia earlier in life. Since enrolling in HOPE several weeks ago, he has told his friends, his teachers and his grandma — anyone who will listen — about his horse-riding experiences.

“Kids with special needs have all that medical stuff,” Stubrud said, watching Austin pull himself onto a horse. “They need that niche to have something they really enjoy. It’s neat to see him have that and ask for it constantly all week.”

Now 4, Kristen Riley rides Peanut with just one volunteer at her side.

Concentrating, her tongue out, she tugs loosely at reins she couldn’t grasp a year ago. When she starts to slide off Peanut, she uses her legs and torso to pull herself back up. She knows how to clean the dirt out of Peanut’s hooves and how to brush his coat in circular strokes.

She calls out commands in a quiet, but confident voice, “Walk on. Walk on.”

When she catches her mom’s gaze, she beams. Donna Riley said she can tell her daughter is proud.

“We went to a birthday party at a gymnastic place,” Riley recalled as Kristen trotted by. “I don’t usually get (down), but it’s hard to watch her not be able to do what the other kids can. She couldn’t jump on the vault. She couldn’t walk on the balance beam. But here, she can do what other 4-year-olds can do. And it’s just a pleasure to see.

“It gives you hope.”

Reporter Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292 or

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