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The healing power of horses.

Riding To The Top Therapeutic Riding Center

Riding To The Top Therapeutic Riding Center connects their herd with children and adults to improve overall health and wellness through human-animal interactions. Hannaford has supported this nonprofit organization through the Hannaford Helps Community Bag and Bloomin’ 4 Good Programs.

Tell us about Ride To The Top Therapeutic Riding Center.

Our mission is to enhance health and wellness through equine-assisted services. Riding To The Top was founded in 1993. During the first three years of our work, we achieved 501(c)(3) status while operating out of various private barns. In 1998, we purchased our farm in Windham and began building our herd. Then, in 2001, we began a Capital Campaign to build our year-round facility, which was completed in 2008.

What services do you provide to the community?

We are in our 30th year right now. For the last three decades, we’ve had the honor of seeing thousands of clients and volunteers impacted by the healing power of horses and the benefits of human-animal interactions.

Our services include therapeutic riding, carriage driving, equine-assisted learning, and a physical and occupational therapy program that utilizes equine movement. Additionally, we do individual and group lessons based on the needs of our clients. We also offer field trips with schools, elder care facilities, and memory care facilities by either hosting groups here at the farm or meeting them at their locations with miniature horses to give their communities a chance to interact with the herd.

For the last three decades, we’ve had the honor of seeing thousands of clients and volunteers impacted by the healing power of horses and the benefits of human-animal interactions.

What sets Riding To The Top Therapeutic Riding Center apart from other nonprofit organizations in your community?

Riding To The Top is a PATH International Premier Accredited Center. PATH International is the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, which is a professional association of equine-assisted service providers that offer standards, credentialing, and education for various services and therapies. Riding To The Top is Maine’s only year-round PATH International Premier Accredited Center solely dedicated to serving people with disabilities.

The other thing that’s unique about us is obviously the human-animal connection. Most people have to come here to experience it. Whether it’s visits or field trips, we try to make whatever it is possible.

The other element that sets us apart is we are very volunteer-dependent. Not surprisingly, our volunteers frequently feel like they get more out of volunteering than they give. We have a robust retiree population, which not only gives our clients a great experience but also gives meaning and purpose to retirement for many people. We also pair retirees with teen volunteers to form some really great mentoring opportunities.

Tell us a story that illustrates the good work of your organization.

We serve such a wide range of clients and have so many great stories. So, I’ll share one about an adult rider and one about a child rider.

One adult who has benefited from the work she’s done here is Debbie, a woman who has lived with MS for over 30 years. She came to Riding To The Top during the early pandemic and was walking unsteadily with a cane. After less than a year of riding, Debbie was walking mostly without a cane. During a visit with her doctor, she said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but whatever it is, keep doing it.”

Debbie started riding with a horse leader and a sidewalker for support. Now, she rides independently. She loves being at the farm, both with her horse, Paxton, and her human team. This year, she was named PATH International’s Adult Equestrian of the Year and was able to travel to North Carolina to receive this award. We were super happy for her.

Next, there is the story of a six-year-old with autism who just started with us this fall. She doesn’t speak yet, and during her first few visits, she was not about to ride. So, her first few weeks at the farm were focused on getting her used to the environment and being near our horses.

Now, six weeks into the term, she’s been on Champ, one of our smaller ponies, twice. This week, she started mouthing words with her instructor. This is a huge change just within these first few weeks. Her instructor was just bubbling. We weren’t sure she would get on a horse, but it’s amazing what can happen here.

What is your most outstanding achievement or contribution to the community?

There have been a number of achievements over the past 30 years, but I will pick one that is recent. Since the pandemic began, we have seen a consistent increase in demand for our services due to the impact of isolation and the additional mental health stressors across all demographics. We are really proud that even when we had to stop lessons, we were able to continue to serve our community in a number of ways.

Our main focus was maintaining connections during a time when everyone felt very disconnected. Our efforts included curbside visits where clients and volunteers could check in on members of our herd from the safety of their cars. We also did Zoom socials, where people could reconnect with one another, as well as Zoom and Grooms, which were one-on-one virtual sessions with clients and members of the herd.

We are really proud that even when we had to stop lessons, we were able to continue to serve our community in a number of ways.

During that time, we also expanded our school-based programming to virtual learning via Zoom. We were able to take some minis out for field trips to meet the students they had met over Zoom, and we were able to continue being a safe space for all of these folks during a very challenging time. Later, through reopening in stages, we were able to ensure the safety of our clients as programming slowly returned to normal.

Now, we have been reopened for a full two years and continue to work with a wide range of clients, including those with mental health issues related to the pandemic. As we look to the future, we are working on ways to help more people get off our waiting list and work with our horses.

What do you want people to know about Riding To The Top Therapeutic Riding Center?

There is an increasing body of research supporting what we’ve observed here for many years, which is that human-animal interactions lead to improved physical and socio-emotional health and wellness outcomes. By seeing, listening, and doing, the brain and body connect in unique ways, resulting in improvements in balance and strength, communication and social skills, and personal growth in areas such as self-confidence and self-esteem. We’re fortunate to have the opportunity to see moments like this within our community every day.

There is an increasing body of research supporting what we’ve observed here for many years, which is that human-animal interactions lead to improved physical and socio-emotional health and wellness outcomes. 

So much of this is because of our strong foundation. We have a professional staff and an amazing crew of volunteers who contribute over 12,000 hours annually. We also have a hardworking herd of steadfast horses and an amazing facility where we can provide our services.

We say we have a staff of 180, 160 of whom are unpaid volunteers. On a weekly basis, we have around 60 to 70 people at the farm helping with lessons. Then, we have lots of one-time volunteers for various corporate work days who help us tackle big projects. We’ve had folks from Hannaford, of course, as well as Liberty Mutual, IDEXX, Norway Savings Bank, Harvard Pilgrim, and a lot of other businesses in Portland. We have a lot of these days in the spring and a few big ones in the fall before our big fundraiser. This fundraiser, the Triple B, is held in October, and we transform our arena into a large party hall which takes a lot of people power to make this happen.

How will you use the funds received from the Hannaford Helps Community Bag and Bloomin’ 4 Good Programs?

Over the years, we’ve received over $1,200 from these Hannaford Programs. These funds really help us ensure we are here for our community in all the different ways that we serve them. Donations of any level help support our clients and our horses. The care of our horses is a really important part of our mission, as well as all of our programs here. Gifts of all sizes matter, and even just having our name up at Hannaford during these month-long campaigns is such a benefit.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

As we increase our capacity for services and continue to get more people off our waitlist, we also see a real increase in requests for financial aid. More than 60% of our clients qualify for financial aid, with the vast majority qualifying at the highest level of support, which is 90%. Our board has been committed since our early years to ensure our services are accessible. As such, we have a significant scholarship program that offers financial aid to individuals who meet our household income guidelines.

One of the parts of our annual Triple B event is a mission-based auction. Half of the auction is to raise money for our clients and their scholarships, with the other half supporting our horses and their care. We receive no federal, state, or municipal funding, so for the last 30 years, our community, including individual donors, businesses, and foundations, has supported over 70% of the cost of operations here. We are just so grateful every day for the community that has built up around Riding To The Top.

Kelly Johnson, Development Director, Riding To The Top Therapeutic Riding Center
Sarah Bronson, Executive Director, Riding To The Top Therapeutic Riding Center

Published December 19, 2023.