River Valley Riders Offers Therapeutic Riding and Volunteer Opportunities to People and the Horses They Love

River Valley Riders therapeutic riding programs in Afton and Scandia.
Volunteers make the experience of horseback riding accessible to anyone in the Valley.

Dale Jackson describes his experience, as do many volunteers: “It’s just as beneficial to me as to the people I am helping.” But then he adds a comment unique to his line of service: “It’s also great for the horse!” Jackson both lends and leads a horse for River Valley Riders (RVR), a 501(c)3 nonprofit and volunteer-based organization that provides therapeutic horseback riding for children and adults.

Every Tuesday evening and Thursday afternoon, Jackson and his horse pack up for River Valley Riders’ Afton location, where at an outdoor arena Jackson, the horse leader, and two other volunteers, designated side walkers, accompany a client for a ride on Jackson’s horse. “I’d been in the wheelchair business all my working life,” says Jackson, owner of Jackson Medical Equipment in St. Paul for 20 years. “Working with people with special needs was right up my alley. All you need is patience,” he adds, and, of course, a love of horses.

Love of horses is common to all RVR volunteers, says Cheryl Holt, a volunteer, instructor and RVR board member—as is volunteer status since RVR is a 100 percent volunteer-run organization, she says. Holt and other RVR riding instructors draw no salary. For this reason, says executive director Joan Dorle Berg, “RVR offers therapeutic riding at the lowest cost anywhere in the Twin Cities: $22 for 45 minutes.”

One family that has taken advantage of RVR’s program is Shannon Treichel and her 8-year-old daughter, Delaney, who have participated since 2012. Delaney was diagnosed with autism when she was 4. “Immediately after the diagnosis, we began looking for fun and therapeutic activities for her,” Treichel says. “Her older brother and sister have their sports. We wanted something for Delaney, too.”

Delaney’s autism includes a host of sensory issues. Treichel knew Delaney wouldn’t be afraid of the horse, but worried she wouldn’t tolerate wearing a helmet. “At the beginning my expectations were low,” Treichel says. “Now I know it’s something she loves.” Delaney is clearly learning how to command and guide her horse—even through obstacle courses her instructors have taught her, over time, to negotiate.

Other benefits are many. As a side effect of her condition, Delaney’s muscle tone tends to be low, but her core strength and balance have improved as a result of riding, her mom says. There are social benefits, too. “Everyone knows Delaney here. She’s made some excellent connections with people, and she’s learning to be more independent,” Treichel says.

If a child or adult can’t mount a horse, it is not a horsemanship barrier at RVR. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, volunteers instruct and assist clients in carriage driving. “We’re the only therapeutic carriage driving program in the state,” instructor Kathy Jo Hanson says. “I’d never worked with people with special needs,” she adds, but she encourages people to come forward and volunteer. “We provide all the training. You just have to be willing to try new things.”

Calling All Heroes and Horses

Volunteers—people and horses—are needed for programs at Rick-A-Shay Ranch in Scandia. “We’d love to expand from five to six riders a night,” says volunteer instructor Cheryl Holt, but they need more horses and especially horse leaders. Each volunteer gets a folder of general (not confidential) information about their riders—something as simple as their favorite color—so volunteers have immediate ways to connect. Volunteers are encouraged to record how things went at a certain session. “It’s all a part of making and meeting goals for our riders,” Holt says.

Sessions occur several nights and afternoons a week at both Afton and Scandia locations. Volunteers are trained, and need not be experienced with horses or riding. Currently programs run six months a year as there are no indoor riding facilities at Afton.

Fundraising is underway for an indoor arena. Purchase $65 tickets to an October 8 fundraising dinner and silent auction at Envision Events Center, 484 Inwood Ave. N. in Oakdale. Call 651.439.2558, or go to the website for more information about volunteering, therapeutic riding and the fundraiser.