References to the physical and emotional benefits of therapeutic horseback riding date back to writings in the 1600s. However, when Liz Hartel of Denmark won the silver medal for dressage at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic games–despite having paralysis from polio–medical and equine professionals took active notice. It wasn’t long before therapeutic riding was being used for rehabilitation in England and then in North America. The first centers for therapeutic riding in North America began operation in the 1960s. Free S.P.I.R.I.T. (Special People In Riding Therapy) Riders, Inc. began equine facilitated therapeutic services to Fond du Lac and the surrounding area in 1987.
History of Free SPIRIT Riders, Inc.
Free SPIRIT (Special People In Riding Therapy) Riders Inc. was founded in 1987 by Amelia (Emmy) Butzen and Mary Narges due to a recognized need for services for Developmentally Disabled individuals that could help increase the participants’ potential while doing something enjoyable. We were soon incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Free SPIRIT Riders started providing services on a very limited basis in 1987, and the demand for our unique services grew annually and consistently. To meet the demand, in 2001 we completed construction of our own facility on 38 acres of land purchased and owned by Free SPIRIT Riders, Inc. We have increased the services we provide as well as expanding the services provided since moving into our program owned facility.
The purpose of Free SPIRIT Riders’ services is: 1) To promote active therapy 2) To provide a valuable experience that is enjoyable though challenging 3) To promote the rehabilitation of individuals with physical, psychological and learning challenges through equine-facilitated activities. The major benefits include improvement of muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development and emotional and psychological health.
Anyone over two years of age with a diagnosed developmental, physical, visual, cognitive, emotional or social disability is eligible for our services. The adults and children we serve present with a variety of physical and mental disorders, including Cerebral Palsy, Autism, Depression, Attachment Disorder, Schizophrenia, Spina-bifida, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, Down Syndrome, Williams Syndrome, stroke and trauma-related injuries, birth defects, mental retardation with and without visual or auditory problems, learning challenges with and without hyperactivity. Some are not ambulatory and use wheel chairs or crutches. Others are ambulatory, but are hearing, cognitively, learning or vision impaired.
Our facility includes an indoor and an outdoor riding arena. We are in the process of developing riding trails on the 38 acres of land we own. We recently raised funds for an equine lift that will lift the rider from their wheel chair and transfer them to the horse’s back in our mounting area. The transfer will then be repeated after the class. This will allow us to serve some former participants whom we no longer serve due to the difficulty in transferring them from their wheel chairs to the horse’s back.
Our typical season starts in early May and runs to mid-November. We have classes in mid afternoon and evenings on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and add classes during the daytime on Wednesdays during the summer break from school.
One of our horses was named the Companion Animal of the Year in 1998 by the Wisconsin Veterinarian’s Association. Our Executive Director is a Masters level Social Worker with twenty three years experience working with individuals with Developmental Disabilities. We have 200+ well trained volunteers, more than 75 of whom have met criteria to serve as certified Horse Handlers to groom and tack our horses for classes and work directly with horses during classes.
Three of our Volunteers have been named PATH Region 6 Volunteer of the Year (1994, 1998 and 2002). Our Executive Director has presented at numerous NARHA Region 6 and National Conferences has written many articles for PATH publications, including the industry magazine, STRIDES.
We charge $30 per 50 minute hour class. The majority of our classes have a maximum of 5 students. Our families usually pay by the month at the first of the month prior to services. We do not charge a session fee and do not sessions. The full price for a month of lessons is $100 and occasionally $125 depending on the day of the week.
We do not offer sessions as we try to serve everyone who can benefit from our program, and have few participants who want only 8 or 12 weeks of participation. We add classes to meet the demand for our services.
Scholarship program: Free SPIRIT Riders offers tuition waivers in an effort to make therapeutic riding available to all who can benefit from our services. Waivers are based on financial need. We use the Federal Guidelines for Free Lunch Programs as the means of eligibility.
We do offer full and partial scholarships, based on family size and income. All who receive financial support are encouraged to be actively involved in our fund raising efforts and/or volunteer in other ways.
Twelve percent of our participants receive a full tuition waiver. Another 15 percent receive partial waivers