Leaders from Therapeutic Riding Centers around the Region Gather for Roundtable

On March 15, 2015, Sallie and Saunders Dixon, founders and directors of Thorncroft Equestrian Center, hosted a Therapeutic Riding Program Directors’ Roundtable. The event ran from 10 am to 4 pm and included representatives from 12 centers in Pennsylvania and Maryland. While the idea has been brewing for a long time among Sallie Dixon, Barbara Wertheimer of Pegasus Therapeutic Riding Academy, and Denise Quirk of Special Equestrians, when Sallie extended the reach and sent an invitation in early March to 18 centers in the region, as many people as could make the date set aside the day to share ideas, trouble-spots, and plans for the future.The group included Executive Directors, Program Managers, center Presidents, and other members of leadership teams who had in common a passion for the therapeutic riding field and a commitment to offering the best programs to their students, volunteers, and contributors.The represented centers included independent organizations; members of PATH International, the PA Council on Therapeutic Riding, and Special Olympics; centers with EAGALA-trained instructors; and a Maryland Horse Discovery Center. Mary Shunk, of TheRetreat at Beckleysville in Maryland, explained that the Horse Discovery Center is the sttatewide program of identifying select equestrian centers of many disciplines willing to open their doors to the public to help promote the horse industry. Discussions addressedsome of the important day-today details of running therapeutic centers: program fees, compliance, wage structures, board composition, and volunteer management. With everyone willing to share their center’s policies, the participants learned new ways of looking at these aspects of the programs and confirmed some programs’ best practices.As Marcy Laver of All Riders Up reflected on the day, “Our programs are diverse in size, geographic location, and in the services we provide, yet we share many interests, goals,and administrative challenges such that we can only benefit from a continuation of this opportunity. It allowed us to learn, teach, brainstorm, and rejoice in each other’s accomplishments. I’m sure everyone left having a renewed confidence in the ability to help each other, in addition to having learned new ways to improve our administrative policies to help the people we serve.” In a discussion of programming, the participants shared variations on conducting common programs as well as highlighting some unique programs and different stages of development. Ben Nolt of Capital Area Therapeutic Riding Association (CATRA), explained how they manage an impressive 40,000 volunteer hours a year at CATRA, where all labor has been volunteer for 25 years, from instructing to barn care to fundraising. Ben shared his wisdom and gracious ways of recruiting and marshaling the talents of people of all ages and abilities (including younger children, for whom CATRA has small-scale barn tools) to provide 36,000 hours of programs and year-round care for more than 50 horses.Sallie Dixon spoke of holding multiple group lessons at a time in Thorncroft’s signature method of integrating able-bodied and therapeutic riders in the same lesson. Chris Brockett, president of Ivy Hill, talked of the new facility for Ivy Hill that opened in February, giving them a permanent home, and their move toward formalizing the structure of the organization. Chris Hanebury of Sebastian Riding Associates shared the details of their Riding Free program for teens with PSTD, while Denise Quirk shared news of Special Equestrians’ equine-assisted learning programs GaitWays for School Success, Youth Connections, and REINS that include unmounted and mounted activities for children and teens with emotional, cognitive, and social challenges that can interferewith school performance.With so many founders of long-running programs present, a discussion of succession planning touched on a topic that every nonprofit must keep in mind: how to continue the great work when organizations are faced with strategic, generational, or emergency turnover in leadership. Denise Quirk’s experience at Special Equestrians since joining the organization in 2012 brought useful information to the group by focusing on the some of the “how-to’s” of succession planning. However, she felt that a gem of the discussion was the experiences of the leaders in the room who had brought their organizations through all phases of development and generously shared their wisdom with equal measures of pride, poignancy, and humility. She commented, “It was a great opportunity to learn from some of the founders of similar programs who are still at the helm of their leadership teams twenty or thirty years since their programs’ beginnings.”A resounding sense of a day well spent and agreements to meet in the near future ended a day of shared information and newly formed bonds. Jeannie Knowlton, of Hope Springs in Chester County, expressed later in an email what many of attendees felt about the day: “I truly feel that I wass in the company of some extremely caring, knowledgeable, capable, and sharing professionals.” With so much more to share, plans are to meet again in the fall, with the hope that representatives of other centers in the area will join the original group.

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