“The kids’ reactions to the horses make it all worthwhile,” said Katie Oakland. “A couple of years ago, we had a five year old girl come out for the first time. She has cerebral palsy, and has never been able to walk. We put her on top of a horse, and do you know what she said?” “‘Who needs to walk when you can ride!’”
Katie has adored horses since receiving her first pony when she was nine years old (and probably, if we know anything about little girls, long before receiving one as well). She began volunteering with therapeutic riding during her junior year of high school. She fell doubly in love with horses then, because she saw just how much the gentle beasts can do to help individuals with disabilities and their families.
When she moved to Bismarck 10 years ago, Katie was saddened to learn that no such program existed in the area. For a woman like Katie, that just wouldn’t do. That is why in 2016 she founded TR 4 Heart & Soul, a certified therapeutic riding program for individuals with disabilities, at her horse ranch 20 minutes southeast of downtown Bismarck. TR 4 Heart & Soul is now in full gallop with children and adults coming from hours away to ride their best equine friends.
“Horses live in the moment, and they don’t judge,” said Katie. “If a child has had a bad ride one day, the horse won’t think anything of it during the next. A horse’s patience is enormous.”
“The emotional connection they provide is even greater. We have a boy who takes a three hour round trip twice a week to ride Reggie. This boy has very limited language skills, and wouldn’t be able to answer you if you asked him how his day was going — but he has told everyone in his neighborhood about Reggie.”
“We have a six year old girl on the autism spectrum come in regularly to ride Rex. One day while riding, completely out of the blue, she said ‘Walk on, Rex.’ She had never spoken a single word in her life before then, let alone three.”
“For some parents,” Katie continued, “Therapeutic horseback riding is the only athletic activity they will ever see their child enjoy without the aid of a wheelchair, braces, or walker — just pure interaction with the world as anyone else would be able to do it. The joy and relief on parents’ faces when they see their kid perched up on a horse, smiling…that kind of sight is hard to put into words.”
Katie keeps nine program horses on her ranch, along with 18 others who don’t possess the temperament for this line of work. TR 4 Heart & Soul is certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, and begins every new rider with one volunteer to lead their horse and two to stand on either side of them and make certain they’re safe and sound. As they progress with their therapeutic riding, a rider may gain pure freedom: just them, their horse, and all of Katie’s ranch to ride around on.
This labor of love is free, borne by philanthropy and volunteerism. To learn how to help TR 4 Heart & Soul’s mission, or to give your child with special needs the blessing of free time with a good horse, go to therapeuticriding4has.org.
By David Scheller