Let ’Em Ride helps kids help themselves with life’s challenges
Autumn Rose Edwards struggled with reading and writing in school. In third grade, her special education teacher asked her if she’d like to participate in the “Let ’Em Ride” program of Methow Valley Riding Unlimited (MVRU), a nonprofit that operates out of Moccasin Lake Ranch near Winthrop. The experience changed her life.
“Through Let ’Em Ride I learned about teamwork, taking responsibility for your actions, my strengths and my weaknesses,” Edwards, 14, wrote in a statement about her experience. One of the most important lessons Edwards learned was to get back on the horse, no matter what. “When I got bucked off I did exactly that (with a little crying) and it changed me and how I look at things,” she said.
The Let ’Em Ride program, which began its spring session last week, is designed to address special social and emotional challenges faced by children and uses horses to build relationships and a sense of responsibility and empowerment in its young participants. Some participants may be experiencing particularly challenging situations in school or life — be they physical, emotional or intellectual. Every Wednesday for the next five weeks, kids between second grade and sixth grade will take the school bus to Moccasin Lake Ranch and work with a team of volunteers to develop basic horsemanship skills, and life lessons to boot.
This year, Methow Valley Riding Unlimited is celebrating 25 years of horsemanship training — from beginner lessons to sport horse competition — in the valley. The Let ’Em Ride program, which operates on a budget of $6,000 per year, is one of several programs MVRU provides. It is funded by individual donations and grants from the Public School Funding Alliance and other philanthropic organizations.
Over the years, hundreds of local children have spent time grooming and riding four-legged MVRU staff members like Buttons, with her kind eyes and soft white coat; Homer, a chestnut-and-white paint with a plodding walk and infinite patience; or Strawberry, a small, friendly pony who is perfect for the shorter — and perhaps more timid — program participants.
Each session of the program explores a theme such as perseverance, communication, empathy, gratitude, cooperation and family. The spring 2019 session will focus on the theme of “boundaries.”
“We try to identify themes that resonate with the skills kids need to navigate their educational experience as well as life in general,” said Denise Tompetrini, a social worker who has worked with the Let ’Em Ride program for six years and designed the boundaries curriculum. “We look at what is happening in the school, where kids are struggling and how to build their capacity.”
Horses can play a critical role in reaching at-risk kids and the Let ’Em Ride program is part of a growing movement in equine therapy.
“Research continuously supports the connections between what humans learn through contact with animals — compassion, empathy, non-verbal communication, etc., and how they transfer those experiences to their own lives,” Tompetrini said. “Animals create a safe space for people to explore relationships and take risks with caring for something other than themselves, which in turn opens them up to experiences outside of their relationship with the animals.”
Tompetrini said that what she notices most in the kids who participate in Let ’Em Ride is the quality of the relationships they develop with one another, and with the horses.
“They help each other to grow,” she said.
Meeting special needs
Annie Budiselich, the founder and executive director of Methow Valley Riding Unlimited, came to the Methow in 1992 from the Seattle area with a background in equine therapy work. She was the program director of Little Bit Therapeutic Riding in Woodinville and said that initially she had no plans to launch a similar program in the Methow.
But then a woman with an autistic child in Malott got in touch to see if Budiselich could help her child, using horses. Budiselich knew there was a local need and she was the person to fill it.
“What I had seen for special needs people in the valley had convinced me that one of the things that could be most helpful would be for them to have some long-term involvement in an activity and a place that was safe and empowering,” Budiselich said.
It was important to Budiselich to build a program that provided kids with a safe space that they could return to throughout their elementary school experience. Her dream would be to expand the program to serve kids through 10th grade, with a special focus on the middle school years.
“Transition is hard. Going from sixth grade to junior high and then junior high to high school after eighth grade, to have this grounding, safe experience through those years would be the best,” Budiselich said.
“Being in the presence of these powerful animals is very grounding. There’s a physical, tactile solidity to them,” Budiselich explained, her light blue eyes shining. “And yet, at the same time, they’re very sensitive and intuitive and can be very gentle and generous.”
In the middle of fifth grade, Autumn Edwards’ father was diagnosed with leukemia and she and her brother went to live with her grandparents while he was in treatment. Spending time at Moccasin Lake Ranch with the MVRU horses was a comfort for Edwards. She described it as her “happy place” during that difficult period.
Now she works for MVRU, saving her pay so she can buy a truck when she gets her license, and dreams of one day owning her own ranch, or maybe take over Annie Budiselich’s job when she retires.