Walking in circles

By Bettina Restrepo

Some people look forward to Thursday because it’s near the end of the week. But for three women, Thursday is special for a very different reason. Walking in circles is a euphemism for getting nowhere; however, for these three women from the Junior League of Collin County, walking in circles at ManeGait on Thursdays was their favorite thing to do.

ManeGait is a therapeutic horsemanship program that provides therapy while teaching children and adults with special needs how to ride horses. This type of therapy provides many benefits including increased core strength and balance, self-confidence, normalized sensory perception and improved socialization skills.

Dawn Jordon, a 5th grade school teacher said, “I drive an hour and a half after working a full day at school to get here to volunteer. I might be dead tired walking out of work, but the closer I get to the stables, the more energy I have. I’m always happy I made the trip.”

Christina Yeager, who taught special education before she became a full time homemaker, had no idea how meaningful her experience at ManeGait would be. “I came here to learn more about horses and how they help the kids. But honestly, I think my two hours here at ManeGait is more therapeutic for me than the riders. My children would ask me to take pictures of the horses and we would all talk about my rider. It became a family affair.”

Without a background working with horses or people with special needs, Katie Gilmore was hesitant at first. “I was scared to death, but everyone at ManeGait is so friendly and helpful. I never imagined shoveling manure out of a stable and liking it. These horses, the kids, the other volunteers – they fill up my heart.”

Besides their Thursday nights at ManeGait, what else do these three women have in common? The Junior League of Collin County (JLCC). JLCC dedicates 10 members, $900 and over 500 volunteer hours a year at ManeGait. These aren’t ladies who ‘do lunch’ or show up wearing strands of pearls. They take their volunteering seriously with their hair in ponytails, sweat beading on their brows, and genuine smiles of gratitude on their faces.

Known as the “Thursday girls” – Katie, Christina and Dawn have worked in heat, rain and even a torrential storm that left them covered in mud up to their knees. They groomed and saddled the horses before the lesson, then walked with the rider for an hour, and finally, cleaned up the horses and their stables to close down the night. Katie described the horse that she worked with as a gentle giant. “He was so much taller than me, but he would bend his head down to let me slip on his bridle.”

Katie and Christina trained as sidewalkers. Two sidewalkers and a horse leader are assigned to each rider to make sure the rider doesn’t fall, follows directions, and has a good time. Katie explained, “Parents trust us to ensure their child is safe. In the beginning, I found myself holding onto Maria* (her rider) even when I didn’t need to. I was terrified not to be in control, but just like her parents, we had to learn to let go,” said Katie.

Christina said, “It’s more than just walking next to a horse. The riders that we worked with had challenges ranging from sensory integration disorders to varying degrees on the autism spectrum. Their lives are filled with special classrooms and therapies. These kids get to come here and have fun – and they don’t notice the therapeutic effects happening all around them.”

Dawn, who is now a horse leader, received her initial training as a side walker. “I was a size 22 when I started. The arena floor is sand. The first time the horse trotted, I wasn’t sure if I could keep up with the pace. I’ve lost 55 pounds since then. I never thought volunteering would give me so much, including inspiration to start losing weight. “She even bragged about wearing a pedometer during her volunteer sessions. “We would walk anywhere between three and five miles during our sessions. We would be tired, but happy tired.”

The ladies beamed with pride, and even shed tears, as they described their riders. “Chelsea*, a non-verbal rider, was having difficulty guiding her horse through a course of orange cones. The instructor encouraged her to say the commands in her head. Suddenly, the horse followed her non-verbal cues. We were all stunned into silence as it happened. When Chelsea finished, we were all crying and cheering. I was so proud of her – it was like she was my own child,” said Katie.

“In the beginning, Maria couldn’t hold the reins in her hands. She would slap her hands trying to do what her brain commanded. When she finally got her hand around the horses rein, you could hear her laughter echoing across the arena,” said Dawn.

“I loved the horses too. It’s like they know they have special riders,” said Christina. She described her time out at the stables as the best two hours of her week.

“We became a little family. These kids, the horses, the parents and the other volunteers – we were a Thursday night family,” said Dawn, “At work and at home, we all have different ideas about what to do and where to go. Here on Thursday night, every single volunteer had the same goal – help the rider to succeed. “Since we work with the same riders and group over a ten week period, it’s so rewarding to see the progress,” said Christina.

These women from the Junior League of Collin County describe their Thursdays at ManeGait as a transformational time in their lives. Christina said, “I wouldn’t have known about ManeGait if it wasn’t for the JLCC. Even though my project time is done there, I hope to continue to volunteer with their larger events in the future.”

The women went to help others, but found the rewards of volunteering beyond anything they had ever imagined. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday evening.

*Names of the riders have been changed due to confidentiality.

ManeGait is always looking for volunteers and sponsors. Learn more about them at www.manegait.org/

Junior League of Collin County The Junior League of Collin County formally known as Junior League of Plano is an organization of women committed to promoting volunteerism, developing the potential of women, and improving the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers. Its purpose is exclusively educational and charitable. For more information about JLCC visit www.jlcollincounty.org.

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