Exceptional equestrians love being FREE

FREE is more than an acronym for Front Range Exceptional Equestrians, which has been providing riders with disabilities a source of liberty for 28 years. FREE is a source of fun and fulfillment.

The equestrian program began in 1983 at Ellis Ranch in Loveland under the name “Let’s Ride” as an eight-week pilot project. Initial success and abundant rider interest sustained it far beyond that test period and set its course of continuing expansion. That growth was funded by several groups including the Larry Ellis family, Larimer Humane Society and Colorado State University.

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Sharon Butler, DVM, has been a FREE Therapeutic Riding Instructor for more than 20 years. She said classes are currently conducted year-round (except January and December) in six-week sessions. Participants each ride once weekly, Monday evenings at Legacy Stables or Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays at CSU’s B.W. Pickett Equine Center.

Children and adults with various disabilities join in on the fun. Riders temporarily can disregard their physical or cognitive difficulties, such as Multiple Sclerosis, spinal cord or brain injuries, Downs Syndrome, autism or ADHD. Wheelchairs are traded for saddles; sturdy equine legs supplement dysfunctional human limbs. The horse’s movement beneath them stimulates riders’ muscle groups as would their own walk.

Class grouping is based on ability and/or age . However, most adult beginners ride with kids, advised Butler. Each participant must get a pre-program physical exam and there’s an instructor/parent or therapist conference. Helmets are required. Both facilities have mounting ramps to accommodate wheelchairs.

Once riders are aboard their horses, the riding session begins with stretching exercises. And since each class size is limited to just three or four riders, everyone gets a lot of personal attention. One such example, Butler said, is task analysis, which breaks down a desired outcome into simple steps. Different riders might require two, three or more steps to succeed in the same task, like getting the horse to walk, reverse or traverse ground poles.

The equipment used is also individualized. Most riders choose English or Western but those with particularly tight leg muscles might instead use a bareback pad. And, some advanced groups can work on more than one skill per hour.

But it’s not all ring-around-the-rosy work at FREE, Butler advised. Sometimes sessions include mounted games or classes go on “don’t fence me in” trail rides.

Obviously, riding is only half rider. The other partner in the equation is the horse. FREE owns/leases four, all of which reside at Town & Country Stables in Fort Collins. CSU owns three, stabled at their Equine Center. Another four are owned by Nancy Day, who has generously been trailering them to sessions every week for many years.

Most of FREE’s patient mounts are Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds or crossbreds retired from careers in polo, Western Pleasure or hunter/jumper competition, or were children’s horses. And since these gentle souls generally range from their teens to late 20s, new recruits age 10 and up need to be periodically found to replace those that die or become infirm. Anyone with a possible successor should contact Jeff Slota at FREE, 970-221-0646 (leave a message).

New humans are also welcomed as classes grow and volunteers’ circumstances change. Most riders require a leader and two side walkers. A six-week commitment is preferred with a minimum of just one hour per week. Folks who feel more comfortable behind the scenes can feed or clean up after horses at Legacy Stables or perform other sundry chores for FREE. Interested? Call Volunteer Coordinator Donna Gustafson at FREE, 970-221-0646.

Many FREE riders are able to post, but few can ever exceed gaits faster than a trot. However, some don’t require both side walkers or even a leader. In fact, reported Butler, one age 20-something group of four or five girls ride totally independently at Legacy. Not only are they able to walk, trot and canter, they’re also learning to jump. They’re an amazing exception to the rule, but each and every FREE rider is encouraged and assisted to reach his/her maximum equestrian potential while strengthening body and mind.

Butler quoted FREE’s mission statement as “to provide a unique blend of social, physical and emotional development through therapeutic horseback riding.” She recalled one boy who totally reached that goal.

“The 10-year-old was a quiet child most of the time. He couldn’t read, had no playmates or friends and was very unhappy. Then his parents signed him up for FREE classes,” Butler said. “He rode all summer, loved his horse and talked only to the horse. Not only was he eventually able to walk and trot without a leader, he was awarded a ribbon at the end of the session.

“When school started up again in the fall, his teacher asked the class about their summer.” Butler said. “For the first time in his whole life, that boy stood up to share.”

The boy continued riding until his teens, Butler said.

FREE will hold two fundraising events in September.

“Tees for Two” at the Fort Collins Country Club on Monday, Sept. 12, will benefit FREE and Child Safe. Sign up for a tee time at the Romeo Golf Club-sponsored gathering.

On Sept. 17, “Trail-a-Thon” riders will earn money for FREE by collecting advance pledges per mile for distance covered at Bobcat Ridge Natural Area. Everyone is welcome, regardless of age, ability or mileage (although a $50 minimum paid or pledged per rider is required). Lunch will be provided and prizes awarded.

FREE riders walk, trot and maybe even canter their way to self-esteem, increased physical and mental strength and a sense of accomplishment by having fun working with gentle, powerful animals to achieve pre-set goals.