During a pause in his group's riding lesson at Dream Catchers, Aaron, 19, reached down and gently patted Gracie, the massive white horse upon which he sat. It was a quiet moment, gone the next instant.
At Dream Catchers, a therapeutic riding center, the quiet moments speak volumes. Smiles lighting up faces. Words uttered. Movements made.
"There are small miracles that happen all the time," said development director Terry Jacoby.
Located in Toano, Dream Catchers serves children and adults with special needs through equine-assisted activities and therapies.
Aaron and five other students from a special education class at Lafayette High School are participating in a series of lessons at Dream Catchers, sponsored in part by a donation from Michelle and Randy Gulden of KelRae Farm – their daughter, Rachel, participates in the class.
The Guldens donated $5,000 awarded to KelRae Farm as a 2015 honoree of the Williamsburg Health Foundation Awards.
"(Dream Catchers) just allows so many individuals with special needs to conquer that dream," Michelle Gulden said.
An intangible bond
How that dream is defined depends on the individual.
Needs vary among physical, cognitive, emotional, developmental – Dream Catchers has seen more than 140 distinct diagnoses. Executive director Nancy Paschall said the center most frequently serves those with autism and cerebral palsy. But others might include people battling addiction from The Farley Center, or teenage residents from Newport News Behavioral Health Center.
Trained instructors and volunteers devote specialized attention to each student. But much of the impact stems from an intangible bond behind horse and human.
"That internalization of human-animal bonding is just really different," said Kim Wendell, a longtime Dream Catchers instructor leading the class from Lafayette.
Horses are flight animals who survive by reading subtle body language, Jacoby explained. They're also socially sophisticated.
"They're uniquely adept at reading students," she said. "And they're also very accepting."
For young people who often can't play varsity or club sports, it takes athleticism to ride a 1,100-pound animal, Jacoby said. "It allows the students to do things that many of their peers can't."
"It increases their self-confidence," Wendell said. "We've had kids speak for the first time."
From practicing verbal commands and motor skills, to learning situational awareness or patience, "the skills that they get transfer into the other domains of their lives: school, home and community," Paschall said.
"Just seeing how free some of the kids are … it's just so exciting," said Kris Smith, a teacher of the special education class from Lafayette. She watched during a lesson as the students and their horses circled the pen.
Many of her students don't have the opportunity to do things alone – without teachers, parents, caregivers.
"I think it gives them an independence," Smith said. She loves seeing their smiles.
Michelle Gulden said Rachel, 19, has participated at Dream Catchers before. She's seen its impact. "Self-assurance, confidence," Gulden said. "That she can do it. Not being so reserved, and being willing."
Impacting the industry
The class from Lafayette is one of many that comes to the riding center. Dream Catchers serves more than 600 unique individuals each year. Currently, the center serves about 100 people per week. The majority of students are ages 4 to 18, but, to date, the oldest participant was 104.
Founded in 1993, Dream Catchers is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Int'l) center. In 2004, the nonprofit relocated to its current 22-acre facility, the Cori Sikich Therapeutic Riding Center in Toano.
Nearly 850 PATH Intl. centers exist, with 22 in Virginia. However, Dream Catchers is one of about 250 Premier Accredited riding centers in the world.
Paschall said Dream Catchers is one of even fewer centers pursuing research on the effects of therapeutic riding. The research team, including faculty members at the College of William and Mary and led by local psychiatrist Wade Johnson, initially published findings in 2012 about riding's effects on children with autism.
"The purpose is to make the intangible tangible," Paschall said. "To help us understand better."
The staff and volunteers, the families and children, know Dream Catchers changes lives. They see it every day. But the field of therapeutic riding is still fairly new. And it's expensive – Dream Catchers operates on a budget of more than $700,000, most of which is fundraised.
"I want evidence that says, yes, this has a significant impact," Paschall said – her ultimate goal is developing the most effective, efficient services possible.
"It's more than what's happening in Williamsburg," Jacoby said. "We can impact the entire industry."
Bridges can be reached by phone at 757-275-4934.
If interested in registering, volunteering or donating, call 757-566-1775 or visit dreamcatchers.org.
Equine-facilitated and equine-assisted learning
Corporate team building
Camps for future volunteers (ages 8-13)