Wearing a nametag that simply reads “Mrs. Patty,” she stands in the riding arena like the ringmaster of a circus. She always seems to be more in motion than anyone or anything else, even when she’s simply standing with her hands on her hips, critical but kind blue eyes roving over the scene she loves.
With swift, confident movements, she checks the security of the saddle and makes sure the stirrups are the right length. In a voice that never tires, she directs the volunteers and riders as they gently clop around in circles in the soft sand.
“Sit up straight, keep your chin up, make sure you’re holding your reins right,” she reminds a rider. “What do you say to get the horse to go?”
To get to 150 Frays Lane from Union University, drive southeast on I-40 for about 30 minutes, then take a right turn past the FIREWORKS (deco display superstore) sign onto a winding, rolling road that takes you past green pastures and charming country houses on a twisted path into nowhere.
Several Union students make this trip once a week to volunteer at Rein-Bow Riding Academy, a hippotherapy and therapeutic riding school for children, open every Tuesday from 4:15 to 8 p.m.
The academy is for children with a variety of medical conditions, including cerebral palsy, sensory integration disorders and impaired coordination, communication and balance responses. Hippotherapy is monitored by occupational and physical therapists and is designed to increase a rider’s trunk control, head stability and other skills by performing simple exercises while two volunteers hold the rider’s safety belt to keep him or her securely on the horse’s back. A third volunteer leads the horse.
Mrs. Patty teaches clients how to ride and control a horse themselves with exercises that often involve reaching with plastic pool rings and riding around multi-colored traffic cones.
Inside the barn to the left is a table full of snacks and baked goods underneath glossy, 8-by-5 pictures of the riders. Moving to the right is a collage of four pictures beneath the words “In loving memory of…” One is of a man with gray hair, three are of disabled children; all of them are with horses.
Right next to the pictures is a dry-erase board. The different session times are written down the right side of the board with the names of the therapists written across the top.
Across from the chart of riders and therapists is a column titled “Prayer Requests.” Several names are written in black Expo, including “Matt interview for Belmont OT school.”
Matt Young, senior psychology major, has been volunteering at the academy since sophomore year. Several of his Lambda Chi Alpha brothers volunteered there, and the fraternity’s service chair encouraged Young, who used to ride horses competitively, to come along.
On Young’s second visit, he was walking alongside a little boy who loved it when people sang to him.
“So I started singing and seeing his face light up, just hearing the hum start in my throat…they wanted him to sit up and unless you stimulated him with noise, he would kind of slump over,” Young said. “So I sang ‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider’ and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ I don’t know how many times because those were his favorite. That was what got me hooked.”
Young has interviewed for Belmont’s occupational therapy program, hoping to eventually work in hippotherapy himself.
“I have never regretted staying up later to finish my homework or missing a little hangout with friends,” he said. “It’s something I value so much, I don’t understand how people don’t value it. Tuesday is my favorite day of the week…and it feels good because they are so thankful.”
Because of the number of volunteers needed per rider, the academy is constantly seeking new volunteers. One of the leaders of the academy sends a text to volunteers every Tuesday urging them to bring friends.
“They always come,” said Trish Stanfill, owner of the academy. “God always brings them to us.”
Back in 2008, when Stanfill and her husband Gary first came, the academy had four clients. Because the service is free to riders, paying the occupational and physical therapists was too expensive to take on any more.
“Gary said, ‘You gather us up more horses,’” Stanfill remembers. “He said, ‘I’m gonna take care of that.’”
And he did. He raised enough money for 26 kids.
“Every year we go out and we get enough money for these children to ride, and every single year we raise enough money. Always enough,” she said.
The academy runs solely on donations. Money is raised through different events, including runs, an annual derby party and bull riding. People even built bleachers so families could watch their children ride.
“This is just like going to Disney World for some of these people,” she said, people swirling around her. “It is. I used to think this was all about the kids. I now think it’s all about the parents…they are wheeling these babies in, and they are always so happy.”
A small boy with a hearing aid arrested her attention throwing a football with one of the volunteers. Someone was telling him it was time for his session.
“He’s a ball of energy,” Stanfill said, partially like a warning and partially like a proud parent. “He’s tough. You just watch what he’s going to do someday.”
Lesley Guilaran, the boy’s mother, is inside the barn cleaning riding helmets. Physics Professor Fonsie Guilaran’s family has been attending the academy for three years now.
When they adopted their son Angel from the Philippines and Xiao Yu from Hong Kong, the two were terrified of horses.
“When they were in the orphanage, they never saw any [animals],” Lesley explained. “All they were saw were rats, and they were the size of cats, really.”
They tried bringing Angel to hippotherapy several years before, but he was too frightened to come near the horses. When they brought the boys to the Rein-Bow Riding Academy, their fears slowly subsided. Xiao Yu moved from hippotherapy to therapeutic riding in a matter of weeks.
Lesley’s work was interrupted by one of Xiao Yu’s classmates at the West Tennessee School of the Deaf, who gave her a hug before scurrying off to his riding session with Xiao Yu.
“For Xiao Yu, I think it’s just neat for him to get that confidence and experience of controlling the horse and understanding he can do that, even though he’s deaf,” Lesley said. “It doesn’t matter. He can still do that.”
Lesley enjoys watching her sons ride and seeing them meet the physical goals set for them.
“Even if Angel has horrible days, sometimes getting on a horse completely relaxes him and resets him. And it’s great to just see them not be scared like they were,” she said. “They don’t know it’s therapy—they just know they come here and ride horses. They love that.”