The Right Step helps children, families in need through equine therapy
May 13, 2016
It may have been the most important sentence of his life.
Sheryl Clossen remembers the little boy. He was autistic and his parents had been told by his teachers and therapists not to waste time teaching him sign language because, mentally, he was not capable of putting two or more signs together to form a sentence.
His parents had turned to The Right Step, a therapeutic horseback-riding center, to help their son. Despite the predictions of the boy's teachers, The Right Step volunteers attempted to teach him to sign.
This boy, it would seem, had something to say. Tired of riding the back of a walking horse, he made his demand.
"I want to go fast," he signed, five words strung together in a sentence.
"His teachers didn't believe it, Clossen said. "They had to come and see what we were doing."
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Clossen is the program director for The Right Step. She relayed the story of the boy standing a barn filled with tables, people, vendors and barbecue. Visitors perused a table of various items for a silent auction. In the far corner, a woman sang a country song she wrote. The Right Step's Annual Hoedown fundraiser was in full swing despite inclement weather.
Located at Coventry Farm off South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton, The Right Step serves children and adults with Down's syndrome, autism, traumatic brain injuries, paralysis and various other conditions. One of the center's horses has predicted seizures in clients. The center also offers lessons to veterans through the wounded warrior project.
Coventry Farm is a riding school that teaches Western saddle and English saddle riding as well as hurdling. The facility is home to about 60 horses and ponies. Six of these animals are therapy animals for The Right Step, which is certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
The Hoedown drew a large crowd that circulated through the barns, fed horses carrots from small blue buckets and hid from the snow and rain, dashing between barns on cardboard paths laid down in the mud.
According to instructor Amy Vessa, The Right Step's oldest client was a 93-year-old man.
"He was really sweet and very spry," Vessa said.
Vessa grew up taking riding lessons from Coventry Farm. When she graduated from high school, she went to college in Arizona. In 2011, she was back in Colorado and looking for work.
Vessa hired on with The Right Step and did everything from mucking out stables to giving riding instruction. In 2013, she became a PATH certified volunteer. In addition to being an instruction, Vessa is The Right Step's volunteer coordinator.
"It's great for me because I'm teaching people to ride on the same horses I learned to ride," Vessa said. "But I can also show clients how working with the horses helps distract from injuries and relieves stress."
Clossen signed on with The Right Step in 2008 when the program was already in full swing.
"I had just retired, and people were asking me what I was going to do now," Clossen said. "I'd seen something about therapeutic horseback riding and decided that's what I wanted to do."
Clossen currently sits on the board of directors and is The Right Step's program director.
Therapeutic horseback riding helps clients who are physically, emotionally and mentally challenged. Clossen explained that horses have a three-fold movement when they walk that affects the way a person hold himself in the saddle. This aids in physical problems by improving core strength. Riding also improved hand-eye coordination.
Regular improvements in the program and placing the clients in situations where they are in control have proven to be empowering, building confidence.
Clossen said most of their clients come to The Right Step through word of mouth. Word is passed along by family, other clients or volunteers.
Sometimes, the volunteer is the client.
Keily Barrett of Broomfield has been volunteering with The Right Step since July 2015. Her 10-year-old son Jordan Barrett falls on the autism spectrum.
"I thought maybe this was something Jordan and I could share," Barrett said.
Jordan was afraid of riding faster than a walk, Barrett said, but six months into his therapy, he suddenly told his instructor he was ready to canter.
"That was a turning point," Barrett said. "I knew we were moving forward."
The Right Step was recently participated in a social media contest to win a Gypsy Vanner draft horse from Lex Lin, a Gypsy breeder in Tennessee. Gypsy Vanner is a breed developed from the small, sturdy horses that pulled gypsy caravans in England. Every year, Lex Lin gives away 10 horses to various PATH certified farms and riding schools. This year, Lex Lin's Challenger was awarded to The Right Step.
Clossen has seen a lot of clients, and she has a lot of stories to tell about the help they've been able to offer, and, sometimes, the need is deeper than injury or disability.
One of these stories was of a boy in such a state of depression his family and doctors didn't believe he'd live much longer.
"I think at that point he'd just given up," Clossen said. "He was wasting away."
His parents began bringing him to The Right Step, and he began working with the horses. Clossen wiped tears from her eyes as she told about the day the boys mother came to her son's instructor to tell them he was out of danger.
"We gave him something to look forward to in life," Clossen said. ❖