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Reaching out through reins

May 17, 2008 By MELISSA JACKSON South Bend Tribune

BUCHANAN - Wait a minute -- was that a smile on Chris Berry's face? While the 12-year-old Lighthouse Education Center student would later deny it, those watching his class's final session at the Therapeutic Equestrian Center know better. They saw the huge grin that lit up Chris's usually serious countenance Thursday as his horse broke into a trot. Chris hadn't been spotted with a smile that big since about September, according to staff from the St. Joseph school. "Oh my gosh, I'm going to cry," said his teacher, Liz Olson, watching as he bounced along astride a gentle Shetland pony named Kachina. That smile was just one of the little breakthroughs that transpired during her class's six weeks of riding therapy sessions at the small nonprofit farm north of Buchanan. Olson considers the program one of the best she has encountered in her 11 years as a teacher and said it has done wonders for her students. For instance, one student with attention deficit problems learned to sit calmly and focus while on his horse, which would become restless when he was. "If you're calm, the horse will be calm," Olson recalled the staff telling the boy, who initially thought the problem was the horse. A vital part of the equine therapy are the volunteers who lead the horses and walk alongside the riders. For her class, those volunteers came from Niles' Cedar Lane Alternative Education as part of Reaching for the Reins, a new program dreamed up by math teacher Tara Carlsen to provide her students with a community outreach opportunity. To stay active in the program Cedar Lane students had to progressively improve their attendance and avoid suspension. "I think that the Cedar Lane kids have been just as instrumental as the horses," Olson said. "They're very patient and understanding. They really know how to communicate with them and they're really knowledgeable about the horses." "I think that the Cedar Lane kids have been just as instrumental as the horses," Olson said. "They're very patient and understanding. They really know how to communicate with them and they're really knowledgeable about the horses." After the final session, Olson presented cards and gifts to the 10 Cedar Lane volunteers who worked with her students. "You gave my class the most amazing mentors," she told them. "You gave them skills and helped them meet their personal goals." While Lighthouse student Corey Wysinger, 12, of Benton Harbor enjoyed riding Garth, a broad-backed bay gelding, he counts the people from Cedar Lane as the best part of the program. "They're my teachers but they don't act like they're my teachers. They act like they're my friends," Corey said. "I really hate that it's our last day here because the people are so nice." Corey added that he and his classmates are always in good spirits as they return to school. "Even when you have the hardest work, this carries on. You'll still be happy," he said. Cedar Lane students Leah Gagliardo and Rianna Everly had to work to become acquainted with their young rider. "We used to have to ask him questions about his family," Gagliardo recalled. "Now he tells us everything that happens, what he did over the weekend." In addition to working with riders during therapy sessions, the Cedar Lane students pitched in around the farm over the winter months doing everything from painting fences to cleaning stalls. They also organized a fundraiser at school to buy supplies for the farm, which relies on donations to stay open. Danielle Greulich of the Therapeutic Equestrian Center called them "some of the hardest workers I have." "Anything I came up with they were willing to do," she said.

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