4-H program designed to enhance lives of youth with disabilities

Published 9:22 am Thursday, April 24, 2014

Volunteers with the We Can Ride 4-H Club help disabled youth learn how to ride horses during last year’s program. (Submitted photo)

Volunteers with the We Can Ride 4-H Club help disabled youth learn how to ride horses during last year’s program. (Submitted photo)

For the past five years, Niles’ Gidge Dunn has volunteered as an instructor for the We Can Ride 4-H Club, an organization dedicated to helping enhance the lives of disabled children through therapeutic/recreational horseback riding.

Dunn said it is difficult to explain the feeling she gets as she volunteers, but it is the reason she keeps coming back year after year.

“It is very rewarding to see a rider, where they are when they first start out to where they are when they finish,” she said. “They start off struggling, but by fair time they have blossomed. You see the smile on their face because they know they can do it.”

Elaine McKee, program coordinator for Berrien County 4-H, said getting participation from people like Dunn is vital for the We Can Ride 4-H Club, which is run 100 percent by volunteers.

“It is inspiring for the whole community that we have this many volunteers. We have teen volunteers, youth volunteers and parents that will come out and help these kids,” she said. “They are so important, because without them there would be no program.”

We Can Ride 4-H Club was organized in 1979 to offer therapeutic/recreational horseback riding lessons for the disabled. The club was the first 4-H program in Michigan to win accreditation from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), formerly KNOWN as North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA).

Over the years it has served both riders from Berrien and Cass Counties.

Today, McKee said the program serves between 20 and 30 students during the year ranging in age from five to 26 years old.

Riders meet in late spring to early summer, learning the basics about horses in stable management, horse maintenance and showmanship. Riders then have the opportunity to show off their skills at the Berrien County Youth Fair.

Dunn said she has seen riders increase their self esteem, communications skills and overall knowledge of horses.

“It is kind of like seeing them flip a light switch when they get it,” Dunn said. “And they don’t just use it here on site, they take that home with them.”

McKee said the program is always in need of more volunteers. To volunteer, McKee said people must fill out an application at the Berrien County MSU Extension in Benton Harbor. They can be reached at (269) 362-2370.

A bowl-a-thon fundraiser for the program will be held from 2-5 p.m. May 4 at Joey Armadillo’s in Niles. Cost is $10 per bowler.

For more information about the club, visit the website wecanride4h.org.