Augusta, Mich. -- Tucked away in the rolling hills of Augusta, in Kalamazoo County, is the oldest therapeutic riding center in the country. Since 1970 the Cheff Center has been teaching Michigan's special needs children and adults about the care and riding of horses.
"Every student comes with a story and a challenge, and they have that challenge every day, all day. And so when they come here it’s about what they can do and not what they can’t do," explains program director Tamara Homnick.
The students' struggles vary from profound physical challenges to cognitive challenges. But take a walk through the barn and you won't hear so much as a whisper about their disabilities.
Homnick says, "You notice when they talk they’re talking about the horses and what they’ve learned. They’re not talking about the challenges that they face."
Sitting atop her favorite steed student Ariel Kaczmarek says, "Riding on a horse is like the easiest part of my life."
Horses offer more than just physical exercise, they also teach communication skills.
"If they have trouble communicating then they have to communicate with the horse to be successful," explains Homnick.
Communication doesn't have to be spoken language with horses. Through the reins, riders can direct the horse with their hands and they can use their legs to tell it how fast to go. This silent communication creates a special bond between horse and rider that allows even non verbal students to connect with them.
Homnick describes the first ride, "That first look when they get on the horse, especially some of the non verbal students and they realize they are on the horse and they’re moving and that look in their eyes, that smile is just like magic."
One horse at the barn has a special connection with all of the students, his name is Harvey.
Riding instructor Kim Henning tells why, "When he was younger he had a chemical burn to the left eye so he has impaired vision on that eye, doesn’t seem to affect him at all. So a lot of the students can relate to him having a challenge."
No matter what struggles the students have the horses bring out the best in them. And every student had no trouble talking about their favorite part of class.
"Trot, I love trotting," says student Makayla Gates.
Rider Meg Brooks pets her horse and answers, "trotting."
"Trot," replies Alexis Rowlson.
Ariel Kaczmark smiles and says, "I like to trot with her."
In the advance classes the students are even taught to canter, but in most classes they keep the speed to the gentle trot.
The Cheff Center also offers classes for veterans and seniors. Check out their website to learn more and meet their horses.