River Valley Riders Breaks Down Barriers

by | Apr 2024

Thereputic horse-back riding program participants enjoy a stroll in the sun.

Thereputic horse-back riding program participants enjoy a stroll in the sun. Photos: River Valley Riders

Therapeutic riding program opens doors for those with disabilities.

At River Valley Riders, smiles and stories reign.

The organization’s therapeutic horse-back riding and carriage-driving programs increase possibilities for those with disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and more, by opening their world and improving their physical and emotional health. Horse-loving volunteers, dedicated staff and generous donors collaborate to bring delight and opportunity to an often underserved community.

On an overcast day at River Valley Riders’ Afton lesson site, unbridled laughter and the gentle whinny of horses intertwine. In an outdoor arena, riders work toward personalized goals, try themed activities and have fun.

“We try to make it very accessible and relevant to them,” says Kathy Jo Hanson, chief financial officer and development director, grinning as she observes a class and cheers for one young rider whose horse begins a trot. “Staying in the moment. That’s the good thing about horses—you have to be here, you have to be present.”

Participants of all ages are paired with a horse and set of volunteers over the course of a six month season. Every week at the same time, they come to River Valley Riders to be a part of something magical.

River Valley Riders

Some riders have grown up with the program over its 25-year history, joining as children and continuing through adulthood. “This isn’t just a pony ride—this is therapy,” says executive director Cheryl Holt. “These kids, many of them don’t have other activities. Their siblings dance or play sports, so this is their thing. It broadens their community, encourages independence and builds confidence.”

Participants’ parents and teachers have shared their astonishment over the positive change the programs bring. “One of our riders went home, and she was so excited that she told her dad what had happened, and before that, she had only said one or two words,” Hanson says. “… What they do here is touching the rest of their lives.”

Since its founding in 1999, River Valley Riders has been driven to new heights by volunteers and donors. The 38-acre Afton property was purchased in 2009 with a carriage building, indoor arena and offices finished in the last 10 years. “Our continued growth is really the sign of success. Every year, we’ve advanced since the beginning,” Holt says. “Another sign of success is the fact that we can retain our volunteers. We have a really good retention rate, and that is so important.”

Lake Elmo resident Neil Spofford and his daughter, Lisa, have volunteered for 22 years. “Watching [participants’] progression and watching their smiling faces when you’re trotting down the side—they all get something different out of it,” Spofford says.

As River Valley Riders grows, so do opportunities for more people to engage with its programs. “We had 150 different clients this year, but we had 50 people on the waiting list,” Hanson says, “That’s why we want to grow … because we just hate saying, ‘No’ to people.”

Currently, horses come from neighboring farms and other organizations, with both the horses and 200 annual volunteers arriving at River Valley Riders for the group classes offered Monday to Thursday. The next phase—set to be completed by the organization’s 30 year anniversary in 2029—will bring classroom space, stables, fences and storage buildings so classes may continue year-round.

“It’s been just an incredible journey, and it’s not done yet,” Holt says. “We still have a long way to go.”

Training Day

To get involved with River Valley Riders for the 2024 season, register to attend the organization’s annual volunteer training day on April 6, where volunteers will learn horse skills and how to best support participants. No experience is required to begin volunteering. The minimum age is 14 years old. “Volunteers make a difference in the lives of our riders while having fun and serving alongside our horse partners,” Kathy Jo Hanson says. Visit rivervalley riders.org for more information and to register for the training.

River Valley Riders
2007 Neal Ave. S., Afton; 651.439.2558
Facebook: River Valley Riders
X: @RVRiders


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