By Lenny C. Lepola
Hidden away at the end of a gravel lane in Brown Township is a unique equine facility run by Leah Alikpala Russell serving clients with a variety of disabilities.
Equi-Valent Riding Center had been in existence for four years at a different location. Russell worked for the riding center’s owners who were going to close the facility and move out of state. They asked Russell if she would like to take over the business. She accepted the offer and moved the center to her family’s 10-acre North Creek Farm on Pugh Road.
Russell said for over 40 years horses have been recognized and extensively used in Europe for their therapeutic value in helping children to improve their cognitive, physical, emotional, social and behavioral skills.
“Trail riding helps with core development and balance, mobility, muscle tone, coordination and posture,” Russell said. “We also use a lot of horsemanship training at Equi-Valent. It’s great therapy and a real confidence builder.”
Russell said a horse’s multi-dimensional movement stimulates muscles in the rider’s body that are close to normal human walking, benefiting patients suffering from physical disabilities and even influencing bodily systems responsible for speech production.
“Riding impacts the muscles of the oral cavity, the vocal folds, the laryngeal muscles and the muscles involved in breathing,” she said. “This results in better respiratory function, increased vocal intensity, improved voice quality, and more precise articulation of speech sounds.”
Russell said horses are responsive animals with awareness and sensitivity to their surroundings and to people. Large and powerful animals, they create an environment that allows clients with disabilities to overcome fear.
“Horses are considered a valuable partner in physical and emotional healing — a way to help our clients develop confidence,” Russell said. “The way a client accomplishes a task involving a horse can provide them with the tools they need to manage real life situations. A relationship with a horse will build self-esteem and self-confidence, giving our clients hope, love and acceptance.”
Russell, the Equi-Valent staff and a host of volunteers recently completed the last of Equi-Valent’s summer day camps — two in June, one in July, each camp three days long.
Camps included a broad variety of activities: storytelling, Native American folklore, crafts, group games, nature walks and, of course, riding.
Russell said Equi-Valent is not limited to her 10-acre property. North Creek Farm backs up to Alum Creek State Park with 58 miles of trails.
Russell also serves as a horse advisor for Sunbury Halter & Saddle 4-H Club, and many of the camp volunteers were from her 4-H club.
“The cooperation of our 4-H volunteers is very important,” Russell said. “We’re trying to get our campers involved in 4-H. Some of the kids we work with have social limitations and they’re afraid of 4-H, but if they spend time with the right adults and other kids around them, it gives their parents hope that 4-H might be good for them. I’m so proud of my 4-H group for helping out, for coming in and being mentors and the leaders.”
Camp season is over. Equi-Valent Riding Center is on summer break during August and the first half of September. Fall classes begin in late September after fair season.
Russell said the Delaware County Board of Disabilities refers most of the riding center’s clients, but other clients are also welcome. She said no matter what disability a client has, just being out in nature is great therapy and that a lot of the people Equi-Valent serves don’t get outside a lot.
Russell also said the future looks bright for Equi-Valent Riding Center.
“We have a waiting list,” Russell said. “I’ve had to turn people away. I think other therapeutic riding centers have gotten too big. I’m going to keep this small. Of course, I couldn’t do it without my volunteers,” she added. “They are the heart and soul the program.”
Equi-Valent is not just a jump on a horse and ride stable. It’s a non-profit organization, a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International Center member using North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) certified instructors, and has two certified Social Therapists on staff.
According to the PATH website, Equi-Valent Riding Center serves clients with a variety of disabilities - ADD or other hyperactivity disorders, Autism, Cerebral Palsy, developmental delays, Down Syndrome, a variety of emotional, behavioral or mental health issues, genetic conditions and disorders, head trauma and brain injury, hearing impairment, learning disability, mental retardation, Muscular Dystrophy, orthopedic issues, and speech and visual impairments.
For additional information about Equi-Valent Riding Center and fall class schedules go to www.equivalentridingcenter.weebly.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.