By Michele J. Kuhn
MIDDLETOWN – The Sunnyside Equestrian Center is a place of great calm punctuated with moments of pure joy and accomplishment.
The center, located in the Monmouth County Park System’s Sunnyside Recreation Area on Middletown-Lincroft Road, is the home of SPUR. The program – Special People United to Ride – gives those with a variety of disabilities the opportunity to ride horses. The spotless facility includes paddocks, a few short trails, a stable, large indoor riding ring overlooked by a waiting room with large windows plus classroom space and ancillary space.
While the staff emphasizes the program is for recreation, not therapy, those who have participated seemed to have reaped many benefits.
Take 6-year-old Olivia Stack. During a recent session, Olivia sat on Pacha and rode not only sitting frontward looking over the horse’s head, but backward – looking over the back end – with a big smile on her face that was a mix of pride, determination and happiness.
Taryn Stack, Olivia’s mother has been bringing her daughter to the equestrian center for the past 2½ years. “Never in a million years did I expect my daughter to get up on a horse and ride like this,” she said.
Olivia, who is nonverbal and has issues with her core strength and fine motor skills, has made “tremendous strides” through her participation in the SPUR program. One of the things her instructors currently are working on is helping her learn how to say the “O” sound so she can tell the horse to “go.”
“I think it’s amazing to see the connection between a horse and a human being and see that connection between a horse and a person who doesn’t have a voice,” said her mother.
In addition to riding, Olivia – and most participants – also is learning about how to help care for the graceful, gentle horses.
Like Stack, Gina McCormick, whose 7-year-old son Luke is another SPUR rider, has high praise for the program, its instructors and volunteers and the camaraderie that has developed among the families involved.
“I can’t say enough about this program,” said McCormick of Fair Haven.
The sessions, which are a half-hour each for eight weeks, are both fun and challenging for the riders who have ranged in age from 4 to 82. While the program is year-round, the most popular times are spring and fall, when the weather is at its best. During those times the number of students involved is about 90 per eight-week session. During winter and summer, about 60 students take part in the program.
The benefits for the students are as varied as the students themselves.
For Luke, he just loves riding. “He feels confident and happy here,” his mother said. “He loves the outdoors and hiking … and this addresses his core strength issues.
“When they trot, he smiles so much you think his face will crack,” McCormick said. “It’s calming and energizing at the same time.”
While SPUR allows participants to do a recreational activity that is available to typical children, McCormick said Luke gets special pleasure knowing that he is the only one in his class at school taking riding lessons. He will be having his next birthday party at the Sunnyside Equestrian Center.
Spur was founded in late 1970s when a group of county residents expressed an interest in having a therapeutic riding program in Monmouth County. They approached the park system and the program found a home in Thompson Park in 1981. It then moved to Huber Woods Park and finally in 2002 was located at Sunnyside Recreation Area when SPUR raised the funds to begin building its present home.
“The mission of the program is to provide people with disabilities with the opportunity to achieve goals,” said Cindy Ross, the stable manager.
Those goals are individualized because of the abilities of the riders, who have a variety of physical and cognitive issues. Many are autistic.
While some come to gain strength and balance, others come for the purely social aspect or to have some fun. Some are independent enough that lessons involve just themselves and an instructor; others need more assistance from the trained volunteers.
“Some come just looking for something their students can do,” said Liz Huntington, the park system’s equestrian division head instructor.
The stable holds 18 horses that are used for all the park system’s equestrian programs, not just SPUR.
Barbara Duggan of Holmdel is a SPUR volunteer and a member of its board of directors. She taught school for 32 years and when she retired, she took the year off and then found she was bored. She missed working with children and decided to couple that with her love of horses.
“I get the chance to get out with the horses and make good use of my time,” she said. “It gives you a sense of doing good.”
Duggan enjoys seeing the transformation that can happen when a student, who might be having a difficult day, gets up on a horse and begins to ride. The problems that were seen for some just melt away; they suddenly relax and enjoy their time on the horse.
The former educator, who comes to the equestrian center three times a week, was trained as all volunteers are during the course of a day. The organization requires that volunteers get trained and can give their time at least one day a week during a session. No experience with horses is necessary.
“Our students often look forward to seeing their volunteer,” Huntington said.
The horses, some who are senior citizens in the equine world, each have their own stalls and go “barefoot,” without horseshoes.
Riders use a variety of saddles from western to English; most use bareback pads to get a better feel for movement of the horse under them. That way, the students “can have a conversation with their horses,” Huntington said. “Horses are good teachers.”
The fee for a SPUR session of eight-week lessons is $336 per rider. Scholarships are available and are granted based on need.
Additional information is available by calling 732-224-1376 or visiting www.monmouthcountyparks.com.