The clouds darkened, and it began to rain on a recent Tuesday afternoon at Rising Tide Therapeutic Equestrian Center in West Tisbury. The adults were fretting about the weather. But in the middle of the ring, Lyla Solway, age six, beamed a smile brighter than any sunshine.
Sitting tall in the saddle, the diminutive little girl gave Deborah, a stocky draft horse mare, a tap with her crop and nudged her into a trot.
“She’s a nice horse, but she’s kind of not easy to control,” Lyla said later. “I feel like I’m doing a couple of different things all the time.”
The world can seem like that sometimes to a child or young adult with developmental challenges or health issues. Tasks which many take for granted can seem overwhelming. When a rider and a horse make an emotional and physical connection, as they do nearly every day at Rising Tide, small miracles happen.
“Lyla’s very comfortable here and is learning a lot really fast,” said her mother, Rebecca Solway. “It’s nice to see Lyla feel so confident up there, taking risks.”
Rising Tide is in its seventh year of helping young riders learn to handle a “couple of different things all the time.”
Organizers say Rising Tide faces some tough economic challenges in the coming months. Last week the board members, staff, and volunteers sent an emergency appeal to friends and supporters. They hope to raise enough funds to keep the horses fed and cared for, and the small staff paid, until their annual summer fundraiser.
Riding means a lot to Ella Luening, age 7, whose smile also lights up the darkening skies. Her grandmother Louisa Luening watches from just outside the ring.
“To have it available to her is just miraculous,” Ms. Luening says. “It’s so wonderful. She can’t do all sports, she can’t do things that are too strenuous, so this is wonderful.”
Kara Thibodeau, one of two certified trainers at Rising Tide, says there is something mystical about the way horses relate to disabled people. She said horses with unusual quirks that pose challenges for some riders, seem to drop their bad habits when paired with a disabled rider. There is a connection that comes when rider and horse put their trust in each other and work together.
“They don’t put their problems on you,” Ms. Thibodeau said. “They accept you for who you are, no matter what shape or form.”
For some riders, an afternoon in the ring is a welcome respite from special education instruction and medical care in their homes.
“This is a connection to the community that they wouldn’t normally have,” Ms. Thibodeau said. “It’s out of the house, into the community, doing something fun.”
Ms. Thibodeau has seen near-miraculous therapeutic progress, including one non-verbal autistic child who, almost immediately after beginning the program, begin to give his mount verbal commands.
“The most inspiring thing to me is you see someone who is in a wheelchair, and they get on a horse, and go for a trail ride,” Ms. Thibodeau said. “On a horse, they’re like anybody else. They get up there and they are nothing but smiles.”
Risë Terney, the new executive director of Rising Tide, says the program is facing an economic crunch, and needs to raise about $15,000 to carry the organization to its annual summer fundraiser in July, where it hopes to raise about $20,000.
“Costs have continued to go up,” Ms. Terney said. “We have a very successful summer fundraiser, but it’s been very difficult to stay on par. We’re facing very tough times, we’re counting every penny. We really need some money to carry us through.”
Rising Tide operates with donations from public and private sources, grants, and the fees participants pay. Sometimes the referring agency pays the program fees, and sometimes insurance covers the therapy, but not often.
The current fee structure is variable, depending on the amount of instruction, but for most people, the cost for the six to eight weeks of instruction and therapy is approximately $400, according to Ms. Terney.
“It’s expensive to feed a horse,” she said, ticking off the many costs Rising Tide has to cover. “Stalls, hay, shavings, training, feed, vets, blacksmith, transportation.”
She describes Rising Tide as a blue-collar organization, with a working board that volunteers many hours of time to help with day-to-day chores and fundraising.
“We have some wonderful success stories,” Ms. Terney said. “There isn’t another program like this on the Vineyard. It’s not just a riding lesson.”