Take a drive up-Island and you’re guaranteed to spot a horse or two grazing in a field. Draft horses, show horses, miniature horses — equines of all sorts flourish here.
And if you head down Red Pony Road in West Tisbury, you’ll find four horses whose job is to help others flourish. They are Deborah, Noble, Spice and Farful, and they are the four-legged backbone of Rising Tide Therapeutic Equestrian Center.
Founded in 2006 by Vickie Thurber (now the center’s executive director), Rising Tide is a non-profit PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International accredited center for hippotherapy activities. Although Rising Tide does offer traditional riding lessons, its primary focus is to serve those who are emotionally, mentally or physically disabled.
“We enable people that may not be able to be around or ride horses,” said instructor Kara Thibodeau. Whether adult or child, resident or vacationer, the center tries to accommodate everybody who wishes to ride. Rising Tide works with riders who have, for example, hearing and visual impairments, Down syndrome or autism. In the summer, Camp Jabberwocky stops by twice a week for riding sessions.
“You see kids in wheelchairs that normally . . . they’re in wheelchairs from when they wake up to when they go to bed,” said Mrs. Thibodeau, “And you get them on a horse and . . . they can be like anybody else.”
It takes a team effort to help a normally wheelchair-bound rider onto a horse, and for that Rising Tide relies on a corps of volunteers. Volunteers help with barn chores, lead the horses through their exercises on trails or in a ring, and “sidewalk” on either side of the horse when assisting less able riders.
“I love it,” said volunteer Meg Verret after a recent Jabberwocky session. “It’s just amazing to see a person respond to the animal.
“I haven’t seen anybody not be happy when getting on a horse,” she added.
Volunteer Laura Hearn Caruso, in a 2010 Gazette editorial page piece, described three main benefits of hippotherapy: the physical benefits of improved posture and balance; the emotional benefits of riding in a noncompetitive setting; and the social benefits of fostering both a sense of independence and of being part of a team.
Watching riders develop confidence over the course of a session is one of the best parts of the job, said instructor Christine Arenburg. She told the story of one rider with Down syndrome who began with the program two years ago and was initially too scared to mount up before a lesson (Ms. Arenburg explained that the height of a horse, as experienced from a saddle, can be intimidating for new riders). But over the course of her sessions, the girl slowly adjusted to the horseback experience and now rides with little assistance.
Rising Tide’s instructors are all certified by PATH International, which has been the main body of equine therapy since 1969. The certification process is lengthy, consisting of both written tests and on-the-job hours. No such process is required for volunteers, although prospective horse assistants must be 16 or over to help out at the center.
“It’s something brand new, totally different and thoroughly enjoyable,” said Mrs. Verret, who, like many volunteers, had little horse experience before starting at Rising Tide.
“There’s something magical and majestic about horses,” said Mrs. Thibodeau, “and you just want to be around them. I think everybody has the dream of full-out galloping through a field.”
Thanks to Rising Tide, that dream moves closer to a reality for all.
Rising Tide’s annual summer benefit cocktail party and auction (live and silent) with live music by Sabrina and Groover will be held on Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. at the former James Cagney estate on North Road in Chilmark. Tickets are $60 apiece and may be purchased at ticketsmv.com/risingtide. For information, please call 508-693-1185. Gazette staff photographer Ivy Ashe volunteers at Rising Tide one day a week.