A group offering therapeutic horse rides set up behind Great Falls Middle School on Wednesday. There was just one problem though; some of the students who were supposed to ride the animals wouldn’t come outside.

“Some of them were afraid of the horses,” said Great Falls Principal Howard Rheiner. “A lot of them had never even touched a horse before.”

Eventually, all the students came outside and most of them saddled up. Rheiner said he believes they’ll all be better for it.

The students participating were all special education students. Folly Farms, which has locations in Blackstock and Blythewood, provided the horses for the therapeutic riding session.

Rheiner said his school’s special education students have undertaken a number of activities this year, including bowling, kite flying and croquet.

“It exposes them to things they have never done before,” Rheiner said. “It shows them what they are capable of. It’s all about self-confidence.”

Nan Maio and Lamar Lubojacky, a pair of NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) instructors guided the students, leading them around a small ring on horseback. Maio said the benefits of the program are numerous.

“For children in a wheelchair, riding on horseback is very therapeutic,” Maio said. “Riding on a horse replicates the motion of walking. It’s almost a simulation of walking.”

Maio said the therapeutic riding can also help with balance and coordination. The activity serves as a means of relaxation, and there are social benefits as well.

“In a lot of cases, the children do not get to leave the home very much,” Maio said. “This puts them in a social setting, where they are around other people. Plus, when they ride the horse, they are in control of something. It makes them feel important and gives them a sense of responsibility. It just makes their self-esteem rise.”

Folly Farms also has a transitional program that offers students on-site training. Students in the program develop job skills to help them go out into the working world.

“Most of the students are on a non-diploma track,” Maio said. “This gives them hands-on training. They learn barn maintenance, landscaping, basic carpentry and equine grooming.”

Lubojacky said that with Folly Farms’ Blythewood site in particular, the transition program has led to students finding jobs.

“In Blythewood, you can hardly go a mile without seeing a horse farm,” Lubojacky said. “These students may have limited transportation, but if they can walk a mile to a horse farm, they can have a real job.”

The program includes job placement.

Matt Sherman, who works with Project Independence, a program at Blythewood High School, said two of his former students are now working on horse farms. He said that with Blythewood High only having existed for two years, that number represented a great success.

“It exposes them to something, and gives them the opportunity to see if they like it,” Sherman said.

In addition to riding horses, students also got to prepare the horses’ feed, directed by one of Sherman’s former students.

“That teaches them about measurements, columns, rows, and distinguishing between different groups,” Maio said.

When working with students over the long term, Maio said teachers provide her with each students plan of care. The program is then tailored to the students’ needs.

Maio said therapeutic riding has even be used to aid injured soldiers returning from Iraq.

“We really would like to see this move to the statewide level,” Lubojacky said. “When the benefits are analyzed, people will see that it’s worth it.”

Rheiner said he was very satisfied with the activity, and hopes funding can be found to make it a regular event.

“I want to introduce this to every special education teacher and every administrator and explain the benefits this has to everyone,” Rheiner said. “I’d like for us to be able to do this once a semester.”

Rheiner said the positives his students received, even in the limited time they had to ride, were apparent. Maio said that is often the case, remembering a child who had never spoken before, telling a horse to “whoa.”

Great Falls student William Grant, who said he had ridden a horse before, enjoyed the experience.

“I had the chance to ride the girl horse, Grace,” Grant said. “I enjoy it. One of my favorite things in life is to ride. It’s something I want to do whenever I have a chance.”

Rheiner said his proudest part of the day came when the activities ended. Two students who were originally hesitant to come outside did ride the horses.

They also stayed late to help clean up.