The number of success stories and small victories is too many to count. However, one in particular stands out in the mind of Dorothy Childs, director of the Eaton Special Riding program.
“We had an autistic child who came to our program with no speech,” Childs recalls. “He said his first word on one of our horses.”
It’s those moments that have kept Childs involved with the program for the past more than 30 years, 28 of which as director, and one of the reasons she can rely on a small army of volunteers every year to help keep it running.
Eaton Special Riding started in Eaton County almost 40 years ago. It provides horseback riding to students that receive special education services from any school district in Eaton County — free of charge. The benefits of horseback riding are many and varied for the students the program serves. Childs said the most important aspect is to give each student a positive experience.
“We try to have expectations for each student to meet,” Childs said. “It’s fun to see the kids progress.”
Of course, each student and their experience are different. There is something about being around the horses, though, feeling their movement as they ride that makes an impact on the students. The program helps students physically, with independence, self-esteem as well as emotionally and socially.
“The growth you see is amazing,” said Amy Nierenberger, volunteer coordinator. “We had one student that refused to get on a horse when we started the class. By the time we were finished, he was riding everyday.”
The connections, however, aren’t solely between student and horse. The volunteers become a big part of a student’s success story. Each student has three volunteers assisting in the ride at one time. With six students riding during a 45-minute class, 18 volunteers are needed for each session.
“As a program, we receive no funding from the schools,” Childs said. “We couldn’t have this program without our volunteers.”
The program is held on Tuesdays two times during the school year — in the fall from mid-September through the end of October and again in the spring, which starts after spring break and runs through May. Six 45-minute classes take place throughout the day. Childs said there are typically 25 to 30 volunteers there each Tuesday.
Ken Babcock started volunteering with the program a couple years ago after looking for an opportunity to get involved in the community that wouldn’t demand a lot of time. What he found was a rewarding experience that has kept him coming back.
“It’s great to see the kids trying so hard and putting in the effort,” Babcock said. “It’s really a humbling experience. It makes you appreciate everything you have.”
Volunteers are always needed, whether its assisting the students as they ride or helping transport horses from their homes to the riding arena, located behind Eaton RESA on Packard Highway.
Nierenberger said there are no requirements to be able to volunteer, except the willingness to learn.
For more information on the Eaton Special Riding program, call Childs at (517) 763-3729 or visit Special Riding1