Rainbow Center’s therapeutic riding makes a difference for people—and horses
© Virginia News GroupRainbow Center riding program gets results
David is a veteran with severe post traumatic stress disorder. Robby deals with intense disciplinary issues and Olivia has autism.
After participating in programs with the Rainbow Center, the Haymarket-based therapeutic horseback riding facility, Olivia was able to give a speech to more than 200 people. Robby began walking away from fights and the therapy actually saved David’s life—he had been contemplating suicide before working with the horses.
“I could sit here for hours and tell you about unexpected outcomes that are just so powerful,” said Debi Alexander, the Rainbow Center’s executive director.
The facility offers therapy to riders of all ages and the challenges each individual deals with can range from development disabilities to cerebral palsy.
According to Alexander, instructors at the Rainbow Center see drastic results in their students, sometimes after only a few lessons. The horse’s stride matches a human’s so individuals with physical challenges can build muscles that they otherwise cannot use.
And the horse’s ability to communicate nonverbally allows students to connect with the animals even when they have trouble communicating with other people.
“Horses are very intuitive,” riding instructor Kat Rader said. “They’re tuned in with people’s emotions and senses, and they read into people better than humans do—they pull emotions out of people.”
In fact, several nonverbal students have actually spoken their first words when riding a horse. Alexander has had parents come up to her and report that their child has smiled for the first time after starting work with Rainbow.
“Can you imagine that?” Alexander said. “Waiting all those years and finally seeing them smile?”
One of the other instructors responsible for the Rainbow Center’s success, according Alexander, is head trainer Christina Aycock. Aycock began the ground work that differentiates Rainbow from other therapeutic riding programs.
Through natural horsemanship, Aycock and Rader are able to successfully create a bond between their horses and their clients. The therapy does not consist of just pony rides, but rather as one-on-one work with horses that attempts to draw out untapped emotions and reactions from students.
The work benefits the horses, as well. Aycock has worked with horses all her life and before turning to natural horsemanship, participated in traditional horseback riding techniques, which she now labels as “abuses.”
Under Aycock’s supervision, all the horses at the Rainbow Center are trained through natural horsemanship, including one that had a particularly hard time before arriving at the facility.
“[Scarlet] was abused, and it’s amazing the changes she has made,” Aycock said. “And the people see that and they’re all rooting for her. She probably would have been put down if she didn’t end up here.”
Several horses at the Rainbow Center were previously abused. Now, Aycock makes it her mission to improve their lives. All the horses are stimulated in their everyday routine, doing ground work exercises with trainers regularly to ensure positive mental health.
“It’s not that they don’t have some behavioral problems,” Aycock said, “it’s that they’re allowed to have them. They’re allowed to speak and say 'something is going wrong here,' and we’ll fix it and then put them back in the program.”
The Rainbow Center has been in operation since 1984 when it consisted of just a therapist, her horse and a client. Since then, it has grown substantially.
Seven years ago, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors gave them a 30-year license agreement on their current property at Silver Lake in Haymarket, allowing the facility to expand what it can offer students even further.
The riding center offers individual lessons as well as group programs, such as the Mane Experience, a program with Forest Park High School and Hylton High School to provide lessons to special education students.
Alexander wants to expand those group programs to allow others to participate in the therapy.
“Several special education schools in Haymarket want to come and do this but there’s no money to pay for it,” she said. “I’d love to find funders to partner with each school that wants to come here and replicate the Mane Experience, and serve as many special education departments as we can.”
The center’s steady growth has been thanks in large part to donations. Alexander works exclusively to fund the facility’s many expansions. With both an indoor and outdoor ring, indoor viewing area and large paddocks for the herd of 15 horses, the Rainbow Center is able to continuously offer more to its clients.
“The whole thing is a healing,” Aycock said. “It’s a healing for the horses, healing for the kids, and healing for the volunteers.”
Elizabeth Schwitz has been volunteering at Rainbow for three-and-a-half years and said there is no place she would rather be.
“You feel like you’re really making a difference,” she said.
For more information or to help out, visit http://rainbowriding.org.