Owner, Sarah DelRicci, can relate on a personal level with the children and adults she serves at Parkwood Therapeutic Riding Center (PTRC). Diagnosed with psoriasis at the age of 6, she recalls feeling different and experiencing the misunderstanding and isolation that often accompanies living with a disability. Living with pain and visible symptoms of her condition, she shared that people often asked questions or tried to help with a cure—she quickly shares with a smile, “Horses didn’t try that with me. They didn’t try to cure me. They were my cure. They were my ‘happy’. They were my peace.”
Her true passion—horses—and particularly her specialty, being a certified therapeutic riding instructor, drive her through the physical demands, long hours, and extreme weather that come with barn life. She tried a barn-less career, went to college, and worked in the pharmaceutical industry. Sarah states: “I missed having those relationships with people that we were building and growing and changing and evolving as people.” Eventually, she moved to early childhood education, working at an animal hospital, and volunteering with horses. However, she just couldn’t resist the powerful draw that often pulls a person to their gift and the very real fact that it was needed; the barn Sarah taught at was regularly turning students away or placing them on waiting lists.
PTRC celebrates its 10th year in 2022—for Sarah, 10 years of hard work: keeping a watchful eye on the animals in her care, tending to a gash in a horse’s leg, ordering feed, using heavy equipment like a backhoe to move stone and screenings, mowing grass, mending pens and fences to contain adventurous goats…and yes, shoveling manure are just some of the tasks she might complete in a typical day at the barn. Those tasks just lay the foundation for the students who come to help heal their bodies and their minds through horseback riding, while they also attain growth in strength, resiliency, and more.
Children who live with physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities and find their way to PTRC are welcomed into the barn family. When asked how she achieves the inclusive, respectful culture of PTRC, her answer is “Communication. Communication. Communication.”
And two hard-and-fast barn rules: 1. Don’t be an over-helper. 2. Respect personal space.
Sarah’s method is intentional and considerate. She explains that a lack of communication leads to uneasiness, especially with the client demographic that she serves. She helps instill a sense of ease by citing the importance of riders knowing what is expected of them, knowing they can trust, and knowing that she is going to prepare them for what is being asked of them. Anyone in a helping role is taught that environmental factors and reactions to environmental factors (for example noise, anxiety, or weather events) require diligence and responsiveness, so understanding what your role is in a certain space and understanding the process of the moment are essential. Safety for the riders and the horses is always of primary concern, and communication is the tool by which it is achieved:
I’ll hand the reins over to anybody who says “I can.”
Well, here’s your opportunity:
Do you know what you are doing?
How are you going to do it?
Why are you going to do it?
Sarah knows that there is more than just horseback riding happening here. Many stories of remarkable success can be shared, and the life-changing physical achievements can be measured – like “Molly,”* a young girl fully paralyzed on her right side. On Thanksgiving Day, a few months after “Molly” had been taking lessons with Sarah, she received a text with a video “Happy Thanksgiving from our little walker.” However, it’s important to not understate the unmeasurable achievements taught by her approach with students: explaining what, why, and how to do a step; build the student’s awareness of those steps; support growth toward independence, then proficiency with those skills. The outcome is confidence, pride, patience, relationship-building, compassion, and more:
And it’s all because we’re allowing that conversation to happen. I feel riding is important, but all the steps leading up to a successful ride—those are the life skills we’re learning. It doesn’t matter if you are neurotypical, able-bodied, whatever. We still all need to learn the same things.
Sarah speaks warmly of the parents who support their child in riding at PTRC: “I’m just so thankful that they feel as strongly about the barn and its benefits as I do.” Humbly, Sarah credits the past and present volunteers of PTRC, saying her “volunteer support has just been spectacular” and referring to them as the “sunlight” that continues to help PTRC grow. But it is Sarah’s leadership and vision that make the components of PTRC work so well. When asked what she wants for the next ten years at PTRC, she said she wants to serve more students and knows she will need to add other certified instructors and help them understand the mission: “We have to have the foundation, we have to have the basis. We have to have an environment that is going to cultivate an instructor that loves their job. Because then our riders are going to be happy, the parents are going to know that what they are paying for they are getting back 10-fold—and that is my goal: to provide a product, to provide a service that is supportive of all of that: not breaking each other down, we’re building each other up–and it all starts with communication and a good environment.”
So we’re making sacrifices for something that we love, and that’s seeing a better world for our children: its seeing them be independent, its giving them opportunity—those are my reasons I do it. That’s why I started the program. I wanted people to be able to find their “happy”.
HOW CAN I HELP?
SPOTLIGHT: PARKWOOD THERAPEUTIC RIDING CENTER
Our VISION is to provide the special needs community with an equal opportunity to reach a safe and applicable level of independence through achieving each riders’ desired goals and objectives. CORE VALUE E.M.P.O.W.E.R. Equine Motion Promotes Optimum, Wonderful, Encouraging Relationships.
|WHAT IS THERAPEUTIC RIDING? Therapeutic riding is an emerging field in which horses are used as a tool for building communication skills, physical capabilities, social skills, and emotional growth. Not only does this help raise a person’s self-esteem but it also teaches them many other essential and sustainable life skills. Research shows that students who participate in therapeutic riding can experience noticeable physical, emotional, and mental benefits.
HOW? The 3-dimensional gait of the horse closely simulates the movement of the human pelvis and is a valuable therapeutic tool. This movement and the warmth of the horse promote many physical benefits such as increased circulation, relaxation of tight muscles, strengthening of weak muscles, increase in pelvic & trunk mobility, development of balance & coordination, and improvement in posture.
|Our MISSION at Parkwood TRC serves the special needs community ages 18 months and up (with the child’s medical team’s approval). We provide equine-related activities that facilitate physical and cognitive functions in direct relation to riding skills. CONTACT: Sarah Delricci Parkwood Therapeutic Riding Center 543 Swamp Road, Newtown, PA 18940 215.783.8658
This blog was written by guest author, Maria Miller. Maria is the editor of the “Help and Hope: From Families who have Walked the Walk” book series. She also works as a Team Leader for Independent Monitoring for Quality. Maria is a wife and the mother of three. She has written additional blogs, such as “9 Lessons from the Farm,” sharing what she has learned from her daughter’s 10 years of riding lessons on a farm, and “A Chance to Grow,” which was about her experience working on our second guide, “Help and Hope: From Families Who Have Walked the Walk, Substance Use: The Growing Need to Know.”
*”Molly” – Student’s name has been changed for privacy.
Photo: Sarah Delricci with students at Parkwood Therapeutic Riding Center, Newtown, PA.
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