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Healing on Horses

Horseback riding lessons challenge riders cognitively and physically while allowing them the opportunity to make friends and learn new skills
by: VERN UYETAKE, The ride for Jerry Brooks becomes so relaxing he begins to fall asleep while his mom Kathy attemps to wake him.

Meet Adam Goeken of Lake Oswego, a smiling 11-year-old, content to spend the summer months riding his favorite horses Jimmy and Roan.

Adam is new to horseback riding - and improving and exploring with each lesson. The program at Happy Trails Riding Center in West Linn allows him this new mobility - freeing him temporarily from his wheelchair and allowing him to learn new skills through horsemanship.

And his mother, Cheryl Goeken, thanks his trainer Nicole Tangvald for her son's newly found freedom.

'I just really enjoy giving someone the opportunity (to sit on a horse) that otherwise wouldn't,' said Nicole Tangvald, certified by the Horsemanship Association. 'I've always wanted to do this.'

Adam - like many of the other riders - is often challenged during physical activities. With cerebral palsy, Adam lives with mobility and sensory problems as well as visual and speech challenges. Some other students have Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder and separation anxiety.

The open arena at the three-acre HTRC allows riders freedom with stability. The non-profit center is operated by Tangvald and 25 trained volunteers that walk along with the participants as they learn to ride horses. Since its opening last November, the center has acquired students of varying abilities.

Students who are confined to wheelchairs use ramps that allow them to mount the horse more conveniently.

'Nicole has structured the classes to offer a great deal of adult support while giving the children every opportunity to be as independent as possible while riding her horses,' said Cheryl Goeken.

Classes are offered for all ages, abilities and those with special needs through the cities of Lake Oswego and West Linn parks and recreation departments.

Classes typically include one to two students at a time. This individualized attention allows both riders and volunteers undivided attention to learn from each other.

Therapeutic riding

Riding horses for therapeutic reasons has numerous benefits, said Tangvald.

Riding horses can strengthen muscles and improve body tone, posture, balance, joint mobility and coordination. By balancing with the horse's motion, the rider's trunk and spine can be strengthened. And the motion of the horse simulates natural walking for the riders who cannot walk independently.

And the riders receive trust through friendship with the horses and the Happy Trails staff.

'Adam's horse is well trained and responds immediately to commands (allowing) Adam a great sense of accomplishment and confidence when he succeeds at a task or masters a skill,' said Tangvald, 37. '(During lessons students) learn how to feed horses, brush them and care for them.'

Giving students the opportunity to ride horses when otherwise it would not be possible may prove therapeutic. But the students aren't the only ones receiving benefits through horsemanship.

'My sister was pretty ill growing up and I also had a daughter that passed away from a heart (condition). I've been around people with different needs my entire life. I'm comfortable,' said Tangvald. 'I've done this for quite a while. You get more out of it than you give.'

Previously Tangvald volunteered at Forward Stride Center for Therapeutic Recreation in Wilsonville and spent time working in a special needs riding program in the Bay Area. She also volunteered at the Lake Oswego Hunt Club. Although she's been riding horses since junior high school, she says she has always felt that safety is just as important as having fun.

'We teach them how to hold the reins properly, how to stop the horse and we do a lot of games to get used to the horse - games like Red Light, Green Light and who has the slowest and fastest horse,' said Tangvald. 'We work to get the best program for everyone.

'It's just about having fun. That's the No. 1 goal of the class - that and education. And of course, be safe.'

Each riding participant is required to wear a helmet, pants and closed-toed shoes. The seven horses at the center - a variety of quarter horses, quarter-Arabian horses and a quarter horse-saddle breed cross - require much upkeep. Thanks to donations, the center is scheduled to continue teaching lessons throughout the year. And volunteers are always welcome to join in, says Tangvald. After all, she says, the concept of the center is to challenge students and have fun through supervised horseback riding.

'The best part of (Happy Trails Riding Center) for me is providing the ability for someone to get on a horse who can't independently,' said Tangvald. 'Their smiles are the best part.'

Happy Trails Riding Center is located at 20560 Fernview Road in West Linn. Contact riding instructor Nicole Tangvald at the center at 503-675-3005. Visit the center's Web site at www.happytrc.com. Sign-ups are still available for summer and fall lessons.