Stable of Hopes and Dreams
At a Maryland therapeutic riding center, breakthroughs come one gait at a time
What really lifts Kimberly Hopkins’ spirits is when she thinks about a young woman who spoke her first words astride a well-mannered quarter horse.
The woman was a student at Positive Strides Therapeutic Riding Center, which Hopkins operates on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and was nonverbal to that point in her life.
Her face beamed and her eyes welled up as she mounted the horse. Happiness filled the air around her as Hopkins softly implored her to move her ride forward.
“And then she said, ‘Walk,’ Hopkins remembers. “She said her first words on a horse. Her father cried.”
A single word, abetted by a gentle 1,200-pound animal, can change a life.
“I tell people when you do this kind of work, you don’t become rich,” Hopkins says. “You become enriched.”
Sitting on a 50-acre farm just north of Preston, Md., Positive Strides represents a step ahead — make that a gait ahead — for clients who deal with physical, developmental, emotional and cognitive impairments.
The idea is to tap the inner calm of the center’s seven horses — they are wizened senior citizens, by horse years — to build greater confidence, self-esteem and life-coping skills for riders ranging from preschoolers to senior citizens.
In various guises and places, Positive Strides has been doing that since 1981, most recently conducting 1,150 rides a year with the help of more than 9,000 hours from dozens of volunteers, plus Hopkins, equal parts administrator, teacher, confessor and cheerleader.
“When it’s up and running, it is a lot of work, but it’s wonderful work,” Hopkins says. “Almost every day, there’s one little thing that happens and makes you say, ‘You know what? This is worth all of the stress and worry.’”
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Positive Strides started on a small scale nearly 40 years ago as an offshoot of a 4-H group. Over the years, the organization, first known as Talbot Special Riders, expanded into a full-time operation at a site in Easton.
A lifelong horsewoman, Hopkins volunteered with Talbot Special Riders, later spending a dozen years as a certified riding instructor with the group and assuming the duties of executive director in 2006.
A few years ago, training moved to Preston, to a farm she owns with daughter Ashley. At the behest of the center’s board, the organization changed its name in 2019 to Positive Strides, which better reflects its mission.
The organization has three core areas: therapeutic riding, a mental health and wellness program, and hippotherapy, which involves licensed professionals outside of a clinical setting who use horses as tools to engage motor skills and cognitive systems.
Hopkins outlines goals for all riders, who come individually or from group homes, schools, community-based programs, and physician and therapist referrals on the Eastern Shore. The targets might be as simple as standing in stirrups for 10 seconds or maneuvering a horse through a three-obstacle course. Or maybe just grabbing the reins. One of Positive Strides’ great success stories is a woman, likely in her 50s, with communication issues. She has come around to gently shaking reins up and down when she is on a horse and gets the “walk on” command.
“That was huge,” Hopkins says. “I really think she has a grasp of the ‘walk on.’ That’s how she does it. She couldn’t say ‘walk,’ but she always says it with her reins.”
Bella was destined to be horse meat.
The sleekly muscled, 20-year-old Percheron was up for auction by the pound, which meant she was headed to a grisly end when a rescue group in Salisbury took her in.
Now, she’s the star of the show, grazing gently in a grassy pasture that adjoins Statum Road in between tending to the needy.
“She’s truly the heart of our program,” Hopkins marvels. “She was going to go and be food. And we are so lucky that they got her and that we were able to get her because she is an angel. She is the most tolerant, steadfast force I have ever seen.”
The other horses had previous lives, as well. Choptank Electric Cooperative, a strong supporter of Positive Strides, sponsors Reds, a chestnut quarter-horse gelding in his mid-20s. Pumpkin Patch was a guest horse for fox hunts; the 20-something likes to be in your face, but is an easy rider.
No matter the level of need, all the horses have an uncanny knack to adapt to their riders.
“The horses have this innate sense that I cannot explain for the life of me, how they know what each of these individuals need. But they just know,” Hopkins says.
That’s essential because training traditional riders and students with disabilities could not be more different; the word patience might as well be etched into each saddle.
“With a disability rider, you may be so thrilled to see a slight movement as the rider tells the horse to walk on,” Hopkins says. “A lot of times, they may have a delay in processing information and you might have to wait quite a while for them to process what we’re asking them to do.”
On an afternoon last March, the farm was bustling. A group of about 10 at-risk youths from Dorchester County was getting an introduction to equine life.
They were part of a “Time to Ride” pilot after-school program that Hopkins developed with support from Harvesting Hope, a youth and family services organization in nearby Cambridge, the Maryland Horse Council and a grant from the United Way of the Lower Eastern Shore.
Current and retired schoolteachers were on hand for in-class instruction before riders got hands-on experience with horses. During horse-leading exercises, Hopkins spotted one teen, hoodie pulled low, who was clearly uninterested in communicating. “He had this huge smile. It did my heart good because even though he didn’t want anyone to see it, he was loving it,” she says.
Then COVID-19 hit. The class is on hold and the center has taken a hit. An annual bicycle challenge that raises $20-30,000 was scrapped, and rider fees are down. The horses still must eat to the cost of $60,000 annually; many require special diets because of their age.
Hopkins and the center’s board have been working on a limited reopening plan for the fall, knowing services will be more important than ever. “We feel like with COVID and so many other things being uncertain in the world today, we will have a larger need to offer more of our mental health and wellness programs,” she says.
Until then, she thinks of the ending of the first “Time to Ride” class, when one girl lined up on the bus to return home.
“She got up the steps, stopped, ran back to me and my teacher friends, and gave us all hugs. So that was a wonderful way to end that first session.”
For more information, visit positivestridescenter.org.