BATH TWP.: Julie Harbath held her hand as steady as possible while holding a spoonful of M&Ms as she rode a horse named Deemer.
The 7-year-old Medina girl’s goal, as well as those of the other children at the horse show, was to see how many pieces of candy they could successfully hold in the spoon until they dropped them in a bucket. The bucket was held by a volunteer, who stood at the end of the path located inside Victory Gallop’s arena on Hametown Road.
It was one of the end-of-the-year horse shows for the nonprofit organization that provides therapeutic and recreational horseback riding.
Thursday’s show brought out the skills and cheers of children who have speech delays, emotional conditions, behavioral challenges or threatening illnesses. The program serves about 60 children a week aimed at improving self-esteem, physical fitness and behavior and communication skills.
Victory Gallop closes for the winter months and reopens in March. The program was established in 1995 by Sue Miller and Kim Gustely. It was recently re-accredited as a “premier accredited center” by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), which reviews organizations, based on criteria to ensure safe, professional, ethical and therapeutic equine activities.
The program runs on donations and grants that pay for rider scholarships, equipment, care of the horses and the programs and operations. It is funded in part by the Millennium Fund for Children and several foundations, including the Akron Foundation, the Reinberger Foundation, Sisler McFawn Foundation and the Tuscora Park Health & Wellness Foundation.
Miller said most of the referrals for the program come from parents, counselors or psychologists and word of mouth from family ties and various children’s services.
At the horse show on Thursday, Julie won the candy challenge carrying 42 M&Ms safely to the bucket.
Her mother, Megan Harbath, thought it was probably a bigger challenge that her daughter didn’t eat all the candy before getting it to the bucket.
“I like coming here,” said an excited Julie. “I just like the horse. I like to ride it.”
Her brother, Mark, 6, came in third place.
Mark is autistic and has seizures. Julie has some social skill delays. Both lack some muscle tone.
“When I was 10, I fell off a horse and broke my arm,” said Megan Harbath. “I would be hesitant to put my children on a horse if it weren’t for this program. There is always at least one person at the side of the horse. It’s a safe environment.”
Next came the barrel race at the competition.
Jane Schueler, who just turned 7, sat proudly in the saddle as she steered the reins of the horse around the orange barrels. She’s been a student at Victory Gallop since she was 2.
She had the best time at one minute and 11 seconds.
“The owners and volunteers feel like family to us,” said her mother, Laurie Schueler of Akron. “This program offers so much, from occupational therapy to speech therapy to talking to the horse and telling it what to do and establishing a relationship with the horse and establishing a relationship with the volunteer.”
She said it’s a great resource for her daughter, something that she could never provide otherwise.
Jane has had the same volunteer, Toril Simon of Richfield, since she started the program five years ago.
“You can see the progress in her. She didn’t say a word when she first came. Now she is outgoing,” Simon said. “I’m in love with the program. I love to see the reaction of the kids when they come here. It’s a fun place. It’s a happy place.”
Volunteer Sean Robbins of Akron, who has worked with Jane and others the last three years, said he loves seeing the kids’ progress.
“They may start out timid, then seeing them do it on their own is amazing,” he said. “They come out of their shell here. It’s different than what they are used to at home or at school — there is something about the horses that just soothes them and puts them at ease.”
Parent Chip Boggess-Smith calls the experience at Victory Gallop “empowering, because the children have no control over anything else in their little lives and they get out there and they get to control that beast.” “I know that’s what it is for Tyler — having some control in his life,” she added.
She said Tyler, who turns 12 on Tuesday, was severely abused as a child.
“We got him at the age of 2 and have permanent custody of him now,” she said.
“He was very shy and very quiet, when he first came here,” said Simon. “He didn’t trust anybody, but now he will hug you and talk to you.”
The children also hug the horses.
Miller said part of the session includes learning how to groom the horses.
“They grab the grooming bucket for the horse they will ride that day and go into the stall where the volunteer and the rider spend five or six minutes grooming it and putting on the riding equipment.
“It works on fine and gross motor skills and a variety of feels, the feel of the horse’s hair, the feel of the leather and the feel of the metal buckles,” Miller said. “It also allows the children to get to know the horse and the volunteer and use communication skills talking about how their day was and whether they are excited about riding.”
She said the children and volunteers bring the horse to the arena and line up to climb aboard.
“After the riding lesson, the children also help put the horse away and the equipment so there’s a start and a finish,” Miller said.
There are about 10 horses on the grounds.
“Petie” is the most visible and most often requested of the animals. The miniature horse makes about 25 hospital visits during the year.
“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a child,” said Miller, quoting a revised version of a saying by Winston Churchill. “Of course Churchill said inside of a man, but for us, child, works.”
To contact Victory Gallop, call 330-666-0300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or email@example.com.