Founded in 2010, the St. Croix Trail Blazers is a unique organization with a group of riders who share a love of horses and a commitment to overcoming challenges. Settled on 29 sprawling acres in Stillwater, Minn., this non-profit’s mission is to provide horse assisted learning, riding, training and competitive sports opportunities to individuals with special needs in a safe, inclusive and nonjudgmental community.
“It was children that inspired the idea,” says executive director, Karen Harjes, one of the organization’s founding members. “As a parent of a child with special needs, my son, Austin, made me step out of my comfort zone and into the horse world. Since the age of 8, Austin had been involved with a hippotherpay program (the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment that improves coordination, balance and strength.) ... Seeing what horseback riding has done for him, is so worth the time I volunteer as executive director.” Austin, now 23, is still involved with the program and the horses.
Austin, age 25, rides Willow as program director Kellie Grayden provides instruction.
The staff includes program director, Kellie Grayden and four instructors. Grayden oversees the care of the horses, facility maintenance, coordinates volunteers and riders, and continually works with instructors. She is also becoming PATH certified with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. There are also 28 volunteers who help in various ways by, “doing chores around the facility, helping with the horses, or being an extra set of eyes during lessons.”
The St. Croix Valley Trail Blazers focuses its programs on safety and working with the riders’ ability and comfort level through an adaptive equine experience. Whether the disability is physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral – the organization’s website describes that horseback riding improves balance and coordination which results in increased mobility, independence and overall function.
There are currently 59 participating riders that vary in age and ability. From the age of 8 and older, from beginners to those cantering, programs provide riders with the opportunity to create friendships in a fun atmosphere, empower, support and strengthen the rider, and nurture a bond between horse and rider.
Evelyn, age 8, enjoys time with Casper.
“Often times, family members of some of our riders share that coming to the facility and working with the horses is their ‘happy place.’ When a new rider starts riding you can see their posture change, and their confidence grow. The smiles and happiness that being with the horses brings them is wonderful to watch. There is a lot happening during a lesson that challenges our riders; listening to the instructor, watching for other riders and horses, keeping heels down, weaving cones, and recognizing their distance of others,” Harjes says.
Every August, the Trail Blazers take riders to the Special Olympics. The past two years, teams of 24 and 25 riders attended. Riders compete in events based on the class level in which they are registered. According to Harjes, “The Special Olympics is a chance for riders to display their showmanship skills, working trail, equitation, barrels, and pole weaving. While going to the competition is completely voluntary, it’s a wonderful opportunity to see the riders supporting one another, and practice wonderful examples of good sportsmanship.”
In November of 2019, the Trail Blazers implemented a veteran’s program. Modeled after the program for special needs riders, it is designed for a more individualized experience that allows veterans to determine the type of direction and focus of their program. There are currently two veterans participating, with the goal of future expansion of that program. Harjes says, “One veteran rider described working with the horses, ‘is like going to church.’” The St. Croix Trail Blazers still has openings for riders. To learn more visit stcroixtrailblazers.org.