The large arena in which Freedom Riders conducts its classes offers a quiet space for therapeutic activities. Rider Brian Farnham is assisted by three volunteers as he makes his circumnavigation of the arena.
The large arena in which Freedom Riders conducts its classes offers a quiet space for therapeutic activities. Rider Brian Farnham is assisted by three volunteers as he makes his circumnavigation of the arena.
Freedom Riders, a therapeutic horseback riding organization based on Route 1 in Warren, celebrates its 25th year of operation on Wednesday, August 12, with an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. Visitors can see demonstrations of how the program works at 4:30 and 6 p.m., chat with the organization's many volunteers and enjoy refreshments and the company of Lucy, Frost and Xanadu, several of Freedom Riders' therapeutic riding horses.

For Barbara Ezell, Freedom Riders' program manager and one of the two cofounders of the organization, the day will represent the culmination of what she terms "her life's work." Ezell started Freedom Riders with Janet Kelsey in 1984 in order to offer children and adults with special needs a different form of therapy.

"The riding has proven beneficial for those with special needs, children with physical disabilities, ADHD, autism, emotional problems," says Ezell, who works as an educational technician in SAD 5. "Being on the horse is soothing and fun. It brings the children calm without using drugs or confinement."

On a recent afternoon, young riders Brian Farnham, Alex Melendez and Ryan Bickford, members of a class for children under five, are led by volunteers around and around the large horse-riding arena owned by Marcie Davis. Davis operated a riding stable and gave riding lessons for several years before becoming involved with Freedom Riders. In 2005 she offered her facility to Freedom Riders for use when the organization's previous site in Union became unavailable. She quickly became an energetic volunteer in the organization, ultimately becoming a certified therapeutic riding instructor herself.

Each child rides a horse led by a horse handler. He is accompanied by two other volunteers, one a side walker, who ensures the child's safety, and the other a voice side walker, who instructs the child to do therapeutic activities while riding. "This is therapy," Ezell said, "not pony riding. Each child has individual goals to meet." For a child with ADHD, for example, the goals might include following directions, waiting for his turn or learning to control his body while on the horse.
"Some children have a problem with sensory integration," Ezell said. "They react strongly to touching, noises, sights. One girl refused to walk in the arena because she didn't like the texture of the floor [it is covered with a mix of ground rubber tires and sand]. We initially had to carry her." Ezell said that for many children, the pleasure they feel from the different motions of riding ultimately allows them to overcome the discomfort they feel from other stimuli.

Each of the three young riders is asked to do different things while on the horses. One boy passes a colored block from the rider on his right to the rider on his left. Another is given a soft basketball and told to throw it at the upright hoop as the horse passes by. "It's occupational therapy. We are teaching them how to use their bodies to do things, to improve balance and spatial awareness, among other things," Ezell explains.

Joan Kincaid, a teacher with Midcoast Children's Services in Rockland, spoke highly of Freedom Riders. "I've seen a lot of children really blossom from the program," she said. "Freedom Riders is often the first experience these children have with independence. It gives them confidence which then gives them the ability to do things [in her therapy classes]."

Two of Freedom Riders's six horses are owned by the organization; the rest are leased from their owners. Freedom Riders covers the cost of the horses' food, veterinary care, horseshoeing and other maintenance in exchange for the use of the horses. "I select a horse based on temperament," Ezell says. She looks for calm, patient animals of the proper size and stride. "Some riders benefit from a short stride. For others they need a long, soothing stride."

Freedom Riders offers 45-minute to one-hour classes once a week to anyone who can benefit from the therapy. Classes run in two seven-week sessions in the summer and the fall; no classes are held in the winter. "We get our funding from grants, donations, and fees for the classes," Ezell said. "But the fees are based on income. About half our riders [31 at the present time] are getting scholarships."

Ezell remembers one young man who was born without the use of his legs. "He's been riding with us for seven years now and he's 16 years old. When he first came here we would place him on the horse. As he got older, that became harder. But now he's getting himself up the steps to the horse on his own." Ezell says a landing of five steps allows older children to mount the horse themselves. "He hauls himself up with his arms and pulls his legs up one by one. He's gone from clutching the saddle for dear life to competing in the Special Olympics horse show in Skowhegan two times. He can participate on an equal level with anyone out there because all are the same when they are on the horses."

At the end of the 45-minute lesson, the three children are helped off their horses. They are then asked to fill a bowl with treats for their horse and feed it to each animal. Anticipating the reward at the end of the lesson, the horses tilt their ears forward and eagerly bring their noses to the bowls held by each child.

Ezell credits the organization's success to its many volunteers and eight-person board of trustees. "We couldn't do it without them. We have about 50 people each week who come to volunteer. It's really amazing," she says.