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Horsemanship school offers life skills

Sande School of Horsmanship plans new program to help at-risk youth

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Jimmy Hatcher, an autistic student at the Sande School of Horsemanship, lifts his arms while trotting through the school's arena. Kassi Euwer (left), executive director and founder of the school, said the exercise helps Hatcher develop core strength. Carie Shield (right) has been volunteering at the school for more than four years. While the Sande School of Horsmanship offers lessons to anyone interested, students with special needs can garner more than just riding skills at the Warren stable.

Kassi Euwer, founder and director of the school, said the school serves anywhere between 60 and 100 students at any given time. About 25 percent of those students, she said, have special needs. Euwer has plans to expand the school’s reach, benefiting the county’s at-risk youth as well as her current clients.

Euwer said the school’s latest endeavor is to launch a mentorship program in May geared at teaching at-risk youth in the county on the principles of animal herdsmanship, as well as building work ethics. Euwer said there is no other program like it in the state.

The peer mentorship program will be possible through a fundraiser the school, which has been in operation since 2008, held last summer that raised $3,600. Euwer said the school will serve at-risk youth in grades three to seven who will be mentored by peers ages 12 to 18.

Of her current clients, Euwer said about 20 percent of the special needs students she serves fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.

Jimmy Hatcher, one of Euwer’s autistic students, has been taking riding lessons at the school since September. Jimmy’s mother, Keri Hatcher, said the school has been a major benefit to Jimmy’s development.

“He does so much better after his riding lessons,” she said. “It’s been great.”

Keri said the lessons help with Jimmy’s sensory and motor skills, as well as improve his attention to directions and his interaction skills. Keri and Jimmy were connected with the school through Columbia Community Mental Health. by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: ROBIN JOHNSON - Jimmy Hatcher hands a plush flower to his instructors at the Sande School of Horsemanship. Hatcher was tasked with finding several hidden flowers throughout the arena.

Euwer said her students with autism benefit from riding lessons for a variety of reasons.

“One really good example is, people with autism really desire sensory input,” she said. “When you get on a horse, natural stimulation is provided by the movement of the horse.”

She said another specific example is that people with autism often take supplements to create oxytocin, a hormone responsible for social bonding, among other benefits. Riding a horse naturally gives off oxytocin, she said.

Euwer said the bouncing motion of trotting on a horse offers sensory input to the rider, but added that one of the big benefits to her students with autism is the experience of communicating nonverbally.

“People with autism will commonly struggle with verbal communication, but horses communicate with physical language,” she said, “Somebody with autism that doesn’t understand social norms, like eye contact — that’s a really hard thing to teach. That’s one way we use horses. They can understand a horse’s response to their body language. You can relate to how their nonverbal communication translates to the horse.”

The school has a varied curriculum, catering to the specific needs of its students. Euwer said the school’s mission statement is all-encompassing, teaching life skills to those with and without special needs.

“For students that do have special needs, each has specific plans more along the lines of coordination and physical development,” she said.

The school receives a number of students who have special needs that limit them from walking without assistance. Euwer said therapeutic riding has been a benefit to her students who struggle to walk.

“The reason for that is, when you sit on a horse, the movement more closely stimulates walking than any other form of therapy out there; stretching and strengthening pelvic muscles,” she said. “A lot of people in wheelchairs, their muscles get so bound up, in order to open up their muscles, they have to sit in a machine. While machines are effective, there’s nothing fun about it.”

While the facility has been present in Warren for 30 years, Euwer said the school became a nonprofit in 2011. Euwer started giving horse-riding lessons 10 years ago, when she was still in college.

“In my first summer of lessons, I worked with a girl with autism. For the first time, she learned to use her voice to express something other than frustration,” she said. “Her doctors said that was because of the riding lessons. That inspired me.”

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