December 28, 2013 11:33:31 PM
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- More riders in Mississippi State University's therapeutic riding program increases the need for volunteers and horses.
Cassie Courts Brunson, a native of Yazoo County, joined the MSU Extension Service in August as the coordinator of the Therapeutic Riding and Activity Center. Throughout the fall, she has expanded the therapeutic riding program to include siblings of special-needs riders and MSU students enrolled in the ACCESS program, which is the university's inclusion program for students with intellectual disabilities.
"Riders love to have an activity they can do with their siblings," Brunson said. "Therapeutic riding is not only helpful with physical issues, but also with communication and cognitive skills. The MSU students are becoming more independent with their skills and very helpful with the horses."
The program has earned accreditation through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. The therapeutic riding program takes place in West Point on property donated by Jimmy Bryan and in the 4-H Elizabeth A. Howard Arena donated by Tommy and Brenda Howard. ACCESS students ride at the Mississippi Horse Park on campus.
Brunson grew up with a love of horses, competing in barrel racing and team roping. After volunteering with the program, she decided to become a certified therapeutic riding instructor. She earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Liberty University and a special education teaching license from MSU.
"This is such a rewarding experience for all the volunteers and families involved in the program," she said. "Therapeutic riding is helpful to children with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, amputations and other challenges."
Brunson said as the program expands, the need for additional horses and volunteers also grows.
"We are looking for horses that are 15 years old or younger, 14 hands tall or shorter, with good ground manners. They need to be bombproof and easy keepers," Brunson said. "Volunteers are always needed. We cannot have classes without them. Volunteers must be dependable and have common sense with horses and riders. Side-walking and leading the horses are important but the social interaction is key. We want every rider to feel special."
Haley Thompson of Pelahatchie served this past fall as a student intern with the program. An MSU undergraduate in animal and dairy sciences, she had experience volunteering with a similar four-day program in Jackson, but she said the relationships developed in the MSU classes are much deeper.
"The volunteers and riders become like one big family. We really get to know each other well," Thompson said. "Because this is an 11-week program, riders have time to learn different things on the horses. It's also exciting to see how the program is developing, including a trail riding area that will take riders away from the arena for a change."
Thompson said Brunson helps the volunteers adjust lesson plans to accommodate what each rider needs on a particular day. The most important quality in a volunteer is reliability.
"These classes are not work. We smile as much as the riders do, and they love it," Thompson said. "We just never want to turn down a rider for lack of volunteers. That's why I'll be back next semester as a volunteer, even though my internship is finished."
For more information about volunteering in the program, donating horses or therapeutic riding in general, contact Brunson at 662-325-1718 or firstname.lastname@example.org.