Leslie Magido leans back on the bench as she regards Josh and Betty, a smile playing at her lips as a light breeze dances across the riding arena.
It’s been just four weeks since she first carted her young charge, a good-natured 12-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, to Ride On’s 13-acre Newbury Park location, but she marvels at the progress he’s made since first meeting the paint pony he’s about to mount for today’s riding lesson.
“This is a pretty incredible place,” Magido says. “What they do here with the kids – the difference it makes is just astronomical.”
Under the watchful eyes of Magido and a team of kindly volunteers, Josh Bennett takes an adaptive riding class once a week at Ride On, a therapeutic horsemanship facility that focuses on improving the lives of children with disabilities through horseback riding.
Josh is one of more than 200 people currently being served by the nonprofit group, which operates two barns in Southern California. Ride On’s original location, a three-acre ranch in Chatsworth, unveiled the new 2,600-square-foot Education and Therapy Building on June 4. The grand opening event featured dinner, drinks, a live auction and an appearance from actor Harrison Ford.
“We’re always looking to serve more individuals with disabilities,” says Sara Jones, COO of Ride On.
Jones has been with Ride On since the beginning, coming on as a volunteer shortly after the Chatsworth facility opened in 1994, not long after she and her husband moved to Simi Valley.
A rider since the days of her youth in England, Jones “came for the horses and stayed for the kids.”
Ride On’s volunteers come from a medley of backgrounds, and almost all of them stay a long time. Josh’s riding instructor, Cheryl Garrett of Ventura, has been at Ride On for three years. Jessica Rodriguez, a physical therapist from Thousand Oaks, has been there for five.
“I came on as an intern when I was finishing up physical therapy school and fell in love, and they have not been able get rid of me since,” Rodriguez says with a laugh.
It’s not hard to see why. On the day of Josh’s riding lesson, Ride On hums with happy energy. A tan cat named Twinkie mews and preens and dashes toward Magido when she calls, jumping into her lap. Horses laze about in their stalls, munching hay. Josh walks toward the mounting block as, across the arena, Rodriguez situates Colin Quinn, 4, on top of a white pony.
Colin’s cerebral palsy gives him a tendency to lift one hand above his head, but when he holds a small handlebar hooked to the riding equipment, he learns to hold still, Rodriguez explains.
“Having the handlebar … is helpful for his posture and trunk control,” she says.
In an almost magical alchemy, horseback riding can help kids regulate their bodies, Rodriguez says.
“The horse’s pelvis moves in the same three ways as the human pelvis,” Rodriguez says.
So when a child’s movements are “off” in some way, “we can borrow the ‘typical’ neurological system of the horse” and its accompanying rhythms to restore harmony, she says.
Two types of lessons begin simultaneously in the arena today. A teenager clicks her tongue to lead Colin’s white pony forward, kicking off his hippotherapy session. Hippotherapy is conducted with licensed physical, occupational or speech therapists for the sole purpose of improving a patient’s quality of life.
Across the arena, Josh steps onto the mounting block and places his foot in the stirrup. He’s receiving an adaptive riding lesson from Garrett, intended to teach him how to ride.
Garrett speaks gently to Josh as he mounts, describing what they’re going to do today as he swings into the saddle.
“What do we call it when we take our horse hiking?” she asks.
Josh demurs, so she continues: “We say, ‘We’re gonna go on a trail ride!’”
Today’s lesson is holding the reins. Garrett explains the importance of a steady hand, and then the ride begins with a command from Josh.
“Walk on,” he says confidently, and Betty, an amiable brown-and-white paint pony, ambles forward.
Walking just behind the horse, Jones remarks upon Garrett’s teaching style, regarded around the barn as gentle and encouraging.
“She was breaking down the task so he understands it better,” Jones says. “These skills translate to everyday life as well.”
For the duration of the half-hour lesson, Josh receives periodic reminders to focus on holding the reins. The trail snakes through mustard plants and pine trees, the sounds of the 101 rumbling in the distance. (Betty couldn’t care less.) Horse and rider stop at a beanbag toss built by a local Eagle Scout, and Josh sinks two beanbags in a row.
By the time the group arrives back at the barn, Josh is grinning. Magido greets him as he dismounts, asking him how his lesson was today.
“Good! I held the reins!” he exclaims, then bustles off to help two teenage volunteers clean a stall.
Magido has been working with kids with disabilities for almost a decade. Like Rodriguez, she’s fallen hard and fast for Ride On, which she calls “a really well-rounded program.” Her son Riley, a veterinary medicine student who’s gotten to know Josh via FaceTime, plans to volunteer at Ride On during his summer break because the program’s been so good for Josh.
“I see a difference in him. It’s building confidence. It’s a new vocabulary for him – we’re talking about the saddle, the horse, trail riding,” she says. “It builds a sense of independence. The fact they let him help with the horse really matters. It means a lot to him.”
In the barn, Josh scoops poop into a wheelbarrow and walks with Chloe and Molly, the teenage volunteers, as they describe how to empty it into a Dumpster. He re-enters the barn to see Betty and Garrett waiting for him.
“Betty’s back!” he calls out.
Garrett smiles, telling Magido she’s taking off for the day.
“Good job holding the reins!” she tells Josh. He grins and high-fives her.
Now, Magido is ready to complete Thursday’s routine: she’ll take Josh back to her house, grab her dog, Goofy, and tote the crew to Walnut Grove Dog Park, where Josh receives a warm welcome every week. And soon, Josh will say what he always says – or, at least, what he’s been saying since he started at Ride On just one month ago.
“As soon as he leaves, he’s saying, ‘I’m coming back next week,’” Magido says. “‘I’m coming back next week at 2:30 to ride the horse.’”
More information about Ride On can be found at RideOn.org.