Upon entering the riding barn at Riley Equine Center, just south of Boonville, Missouri, you are sure to hear the buzz of laughter from both students and volunteers. It is difficult to visit and not leave with a smile on your face and a warm feeling in your heart.
Riley Equine Center is a therapeutic riding barn run by local Boonville psychiatrist, Bonnie Riley. She started the center after her son was severely injured in an accident in 1992. The goal was to provide clients with equine assisted psychotherapy, as well as hippotherapy. Equine assisted psychotherapy uses the experiences gained through the human and horse interaction for personal development and mental and behavioral therapy, while hippotherapy uses the movements of the horse to assist in speech, physical and occupational therapies. Since Riley started the program, she has needed all the help she can get to cater to all of her clients. She has enlisted the help of local volunteers to make everything run smoothly. While she could not operate without her volunteers, what many people do not realize is that Riley and her clients are not the only beneficiaries in this situation. Therapy can be a two-way street.
As volunteers devote their time for many reasons, the positive experience they gain provides a sort of therapy for them as well.
‘Sometimes the rider’s experience is totally influenced by his/her interaction with that volunteer.’
— Bonnie Riley
“Sometimes the rider’s experience is totally influenced by his/her interaction with that volunteer,” Riley said. “The volunteer can build or foster confidence, help calm any anxiety or fear, help them feel safe and assist them in their endeavors in their therapy. A good volunteer is worth his/her weight in gold, and I believe we have the best volunteers around. They work tirelessly, taking time out of their busy schedules, so that others may feel success and have a positive experience.”
As a past volunteer at REC myself, I believe it is important for people to understand what benefits volunteers receive from their experience.
Jamie Hall, a friend of Riley’s family, has been a volunteer since not long after Riley opened the center in 2012. During that time, Hall has witnessed many positive moments for the clients. Volunteers are often asked why they do it. In Hall’s case, her answer is one that many people wouldn’t have considered, especially in a case of working with disabled riders.
“I was the sole caregiver for my elderly father and spent most evenings with him,” Hall said. “I felt I needed to spend a couple of hours during the week for myself to improve my well-being, and REC provided my emotional therapy.”
Bentley Woods, a riding instructor at REC, assists the disabled so that they can ride the horse in a safe, secure atmosphere. He also makes sure that horses are in good condition and are ready for the riders to use.
Woods has been with Riley and the equine center since the start. He heard about the opportunity through several avenues, but he was drawn to the position for reasons other than being asked to help out.
“I like being able to help the people that aren’t as fortunate as I am and help them with riding the horses,” said Woods. “That’s one of the few things that I feel that I know something about.”
Being a volunteer takes an extraordinary type of person. Some of the clients have a hard time communicating their thanks. As a volunteer, special moments become what you cherish.
“The most rewarding moments of being a volunteer are seeing those clients with physical and mental handicaps excel at tasks no one ever thought they would be able to do,” Hall said. “Moments as small as a smile or as big as sitting straight in a saddle are milestones for the clients and myself.”
‘Moments as small as a smile or as big as sitting straight in a saddle are milestones for the clients and myself.’
— REC volunteer Jamie Hall
As clients succeed, volunteers benefit on a personal level.
“It allowed me to take a look at myself and heal those emotions that were detrimental to me,” Hall said.
Another misconception is that volunteers come to just complete one task after another, so they can leave. However, there is more to it than that.
“It actually gives the volunteers some sense of responsibility, plus it lets them see the other parts of the world that’s out there,” Woods said. “They’re helping and seeing this taking place with these folks. Then, it also shows them the outcome of what a little bit of their time can benefit the riders.”
Interacting with the client and animals has lasting effects on the volunteers. Many volunteers gain so much from the people they work with, and learn things about themselves that they remember their entire lives. The memories made by interacting with these clients are definitely lifelong.
“The most memorable client I worked with was Virginia,” Hall said. “She was prone to severe anxiety and panic attacks but loved to ride horses. In working with her, she was eventually able to ride by herself with confidence and always with a great smile. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I helped her with that!’”
Volunteering may seem inconvenient, time consuming and even scary in the beginning, but at the end of the day the advantages tremendously outweigh the disadvantages. I personally have been able to grow so much through this opportunity. I have learned to understand body language and new forms of communication because many cannot communicate like you and me. Also, I’ve been able to overcome feelings of fear and being uncomfortable with the unknown. I’ve learned to stand up for myself. I have also watched these clients excel and achieve their goals. I have seen the happiness glow on their faces, and it is more rewarding than you could ever imagine.
These are things I never expected to gain through volunteering, and I never would have matured as I have without this experience. Next time you are asked to volunteer, don’t look at it as giving up something, because it is so much more fulfilling than that. Instead, look at it as the possibility to give and receive memorable moments by purely volunteering your time with others.