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Forward Stride saddling up for a move

Beaverton nonprofit must vacate Cooper Mountain but is planning a new home southwest of Aloha


TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Hailee Disner rides Alex, an Appaloosa, during a therapeutic riding lesson at Forward Stride.Sydney Flynn didn’t speak a word during the first four years of her life. She didn’t, that is, until one of her early sessions of therapeutic horseback riding.

“It was incredible,” said her mother, JoAnna Flynn of Beaverton, while watching her 12-year-old daughter comfortably ride a horse named Cedar at Forward Stride's stables, located on the southern flank of Cooper Mountain. “It’s pretty spectacular, the power that the horse has on someone.”

Sydney has dyspraxia, a developmental disorder that impacts coordination and learning, but riding at Forward Stride on and off for the past eight years has helped her build both physical and intellectual skills, JoAnna Flynn said.

Sydney is among hundreds of riders who have benefitted from the “power of the horse” through Forward Stride’s therapeutic and recreational riding and horsemanship programs during its 13-year history.

About two-thirds of its participants have clinical diagnoses that bring them to the stables for lessons, which help build physical strength, life skills and confidence along with riding techniques.

“When they get up on a big animal like this, they become enabled,” said instructor Eve Irish, also a certified occupational therapy assistant.

“It’s really cool to see,” added Michelle Whiteaker, who handles marketing and also teaches lessons at Forward Stride.

Now, however, it’s the Beaverton nonprofit that needs a bit of help as it tacks up for a big move.

The organization, now housed in an aging farm complex on part of a leased 60-acre farm, sits smack dab in the path of a future housing development that soon will blanket the South Cooper Mountain area. Forward Stride must move in nine months.

While many organizations might consider an eviction a real hardship, new executive director Jason Burdge considers the long-expected move an opportunity. In fact, current land owner Metropolitan Land Group has helped Forward Stride with parts of that process, he said.

A fundraising campaign is underway and Forward Stride already has a 20-acre parcel of land lined up in a rural area off Southwest Farmington Road, a few miles west of its current spot and outside the Urban Growth Boundary. That’s where Burdge said Forward Stride’s $3.5 million “center of excellence” will rise from the countryside.

“We get to build a facility that is 100 percent built to our needs,” equipped with wheelchair accessible stalls, lifts to help some clients into the saddle and other specialized equipment, he said. “We’re going to have one of the best facilities in the nation.”

Forward Stride already is among the top therapeutic horse-riding centers in the Northwest, Burdge said. It has nine full-time staffers and about as many part-time instructors, plus another 150 volunteers.

Clients range in age from 4 to over 70, including those with some form of disability but also many who take traditional horse-riding lessons for fun and stress relief.

Beverly Plack said that riding at Forward Stride has given her granddaughter, 13-year-old Hailee Disner of Tigard, improved self-esteem and physical health.

Plack said that Hailee, who has autism, now likes to tell people: “I have a talent. I can ride horses. I’m good with animals.”

Another classmate, 11-year-old Avery Schuler of Newberg, wakes up every Thursday and peppers her father with the same question: “Horse today?”

That’s the day that Avery teams up with Redford, a gentlemanly horse with braided hair who helps Avery navigate through arena courses set up at Forward Stride.

Avery has a unique chromosomal disorder that affects her intellectual and physical development. Like many of her peers, she started with hippotherapy (therapeutic or rehabilitative horseback riding) and then moved into classes that involve more skill.

“It’s worked out much better than I would have imagined,” said Avery’s father, Bob Schuler, watching from the edge of the arena.

Burdge said the move and expansion will allow Forward Stride to expand its programs for even more students like Sydney, Hailee and Avery, and for all types of horse lovers.

For example, a specially designed facility could better offer a new driving program with horses pulling participants who can’t ride in a saddle, a vaulting class for off-course skills, or corporate team-building programs.

Burdge said some clients also get job skills training, perhaps earning their first paychecks while helping in the barns and on the grounds.

“We’re more than just riding,” he said. “We’re here to improve our community.”