Horses, trainers at Bitterroot Therapeutic Riding offer more than just time
By BRETT BERNSTEN
Photos by LIDO VIZZUTTI
On their first day in the arena after a long, harsh winter, the horses at Bitterroot Therapeutic Riding carry extra weight. Their bellies bulge from lazy, hay-filled days. Their saddle straps stretch to the outermost notches. But their largest loads, the ones they were carefully selected to burden, sit on top.
Astride a beige mare named Tonah, Abbie Jessop leads the exercise. Despite being born with cerebral palsy and nearly deaf, the 18-year-old Pinesdale resident rides independently.
She steers the patient mare next to a metal rack holding plastic rings. Reaching up with a shaky hand, she spears a ring and drops it onto a nearby cone like a gaucho in training.
Cheers erupt from her two instructors, Ernie Purcelli and Mary Cline. Jessop beams proudly.
“Does she want to keep riding?” Purcelli asks.
Cline relays the message through sign language and receives an immediate response.
“That’s a stupid question Ernie,” Cline said smiling. “She wants to ride like a cowboy.”
The scene marks another successful session at BTR.
For the past 14 years, the nonprofit has provided equine-assisted therapy for the disabled, joining a fast-growing field gaining acceptance from medical authorities. BTR is one of 850 centers around the world, including six others in Montana, certified by the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International, or PATH Intl.
While therapeutic horseback riding has roots tracing back to ancient Greece, BTR Program Director Linda Olson said recent scientific studies lend credence to the method’s physical and mental benefits.
At the basic level, Olson explains, horses and humans share a similar stride. Riding stimulates nerve endings, supplying blood to multiple muscle groups in the rhythm and timing of a natural gate.
For Jessop, her cerebral palsy causes her muscles to overcompensate, throwing her off-balance. When she first started attending BTR at the age of 6, she was confined to a wheelchair. Now, after 12 years of regular sessions, Jessop walks unassisted and even helps saddle up before rides.
“She’s relaxed,” said Jessop’s mother, Robyn Warner. “It’s evened her out.”
BTR caters to a group of people with a range of disabilities, from disorders such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome, to physical challenges like muscular dystrophy and paralysis. But more than tangible benefits, the center offers an experience not available in any clinic.
Nestled among hills overlooking the jagged Bitterroot Mountains outside Corvallis, BTR provides a distinct home-on-the-range feel. A pack of farm dogs greet visitors with reckless enthusiasm. The sounds and smell of livestock fill the air. Hawks frolic among the updrafts surging through the valley.
It’s a foray into a tranquil realm where the pleasures of horsemanship soften the daunting realities surrounding disabilities.
BTR was founded in 2000, when two women who had attended a national convention on therapeutic horseback riding suggested forming a center in the covered arena on Linda and Donald Olson’s ranch.
The proposal came out of the blue for the Olsons. Donald runs the oldest bronze foundry in the Northwest, while Linda’s background ranges from fashion modeling in Beverly Hills to becoming one of the first female workers on the Alaska Pipeline.
But being horse lovers with the proper venue, the couple jumped on board. And although she had “no clue” about working with the disabled, Linda spearheaded the operation.
As program director, Olson runs BTR with a personality as bold as the view from her back door. She constantly mixes up the names of her students, and then atones for her mistake with a heartfelt shoulder squeeze or hair mussing.
“I’m the granny,” said Olson, who raised six children of her own. “I’ve seen a lot of these kids grow up around here.”
For the many of BTR’s all-volunteer staff, the job serves as soul-satisfying segue from previous occupations.
“This is the most rewarding work you can do,” said Ernie Purcelli, BTR’s lead instructor.
Purcelli entered the field from the rough and tumble world of competitive horsemanship. He roped in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association for 11 years and was first introduced to the therapeutic side of riding while working as a horse trainer in Illinois. During his initial volunteer sessions, Purcelli experienced breakthroughs that hooked him for life.
“I’ve seen kids speak their first words,” he said. “Their parents were waiting in the stands with tears in their eyes.”
Purcelli joined BTR’s team after moving to Darby in 2003. He has since attained certification from PATH Intl. and has served as BTR’s lead instructor for the past three years.
His commitment is a labor of love. He volunteers up to four days a week at BTR and his lone certification keeps the center accredited.
But whatever soft spots Purcelli might have, once in the arena he reverts to his rodeo roots. There’s no babying in his lessons. If a student makes a mistake or misses a turn, Purcelli urges them to try again.
“I’m not a physical therapist,” he said. “I’m a riding instructor.”
Purcelli sets longterm goals for riders. For Jessop, it’s to show horses. For another girl, it’s to barrel race. This matter-of-fact approach augments the styles of other BTR volunteers.
“It’s sort of a combination between cowboy and mommy,” said Mary Cline, a consultant who specialized in hearing disabilities. “I’m more the nurturing one.”
But no matter how hard the instructors at BTR work together to create a supportive atmosphere, the other half of the staff often steals the show.
With the charm and disposition of a family dog, the 15 or so horses at BTR provide the perfect remedy for their riders.
“They are the most sensitive creatures,” Purcelli said. “It might sound crazy, but a horse can feel a fly on their butt.”
BTR receives all its horses through donation, but typically only one in 20 have the temperance needed to work with the disabled.
“This is very monotonous work for a horse,” said Purcelli. “You need ones that are pretty strong.”
Tonah, a Norwegian Fjord, fits the mold perfectly. As a small draft horse, she can carry heavy loads yet isn’t tall, making it easy to mount and dismount. Moreover, she has the calm, patient demeanor necessary for long days in the arena.
Tonah came to BTR on loan, but Olson said she’s so well suited for the work she’ll probably live out the rest of her days at the center. For Tonah and the rest of the horses, BTR acts as an equine retirement home of sorts, complete with endless attention and appreciation.
Cory Stalling, a 13-year-old boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, tries to get as much saddle time as possible.
“He wants to ride a different horse every time,” said Stalling’s mother Chris. “He thinks they’re like sports cars.”
For Sequoia Fitzpatrick the bond reaches deeper. Her autism makes it hard to concentrate, but when riding a horse she focuses on the task at hand.
Fitzpatrick’s mother Jessica said after Sequoia’s first riding session she fell asleep on the car ride home, a rare event for the rambunctious 9-year-old.
“I think it fills her sensory cup,” Fitzpatrick says. “I love it. I just know the peace it brings her.”
That sense of serenity permeates all those involved with BTR. It’s in the eyes of the horses, the words of the instructors and the smiles of the students.
During a break in the day’s riding sessions, Olson takes time to reflect on BTR’s path to success. She sits in her house a short drive down a dirt road from the arena. A wood stove heats a kettle of water in the corner. The snow-capped Bitterroots shine vividly through the living room window.
Despite growing steadily during the past 14 years, Olson says BTR still experiences significant financial hardships plaguing the industry. Although medical professionals are embracing the benefits of therapeutic riding, insurance agencies have yet to come around.
BTR sponsors students through scholarship programs and accepts Medicaid through Home and Community Based Services, but often it’s a struggle to scrape up enough funds.
“It’s usually me with my hand out, writing grants and hitting up my friends,” Olson said, adding with a laugh, “who now have started to run away from me.”
What support BTR does receive, though, comes in waves of selfless generosity. Fellow equestrians donate extra riding gear. Neighbors pitch in around the arena, leading horses and shoveling up waste. Even in tough times, community members give what they can.
Olson leafs through a photo album of BTR over the years. Her eyes light up as she goes from picture to picture, mirroring the elation on the pages. She looks as if she’s reliving the experiences again, journeying back down a path built on kindness and sympathy.
“There’s so much good around,” she said, her voice trailing into reverie. “When people start complaining about the government and this and that, I just can’t get on board.”
She smiles and gazes out the living room window.
“Just look at this,” she said, gesturing toward a scene where craggy peaks tower over a pair of horses grazing on the first grasses of spring. “Just look at what happens up there in the arena.”
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