Will Myers is 9 years old and has been riding at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center since he was 2. Born with a portion of his brain missing, Will has struggled with self-confidence. However, emotional and physical therapy with Cedar Creek’s horses has helped him feel more secure.

Cedar Creek has provided equine-assisted therapy since 1988. This type of therapy promotes physical, occupational and emotional growth in people with various disabilities. When COVID-19 cases were reported in Columbia, Cedar Creek had to temporarily shut down its facilities. But when it reopened July 8, it switched from high-fives to air-fives and started using sanitized saddles.

Prior to COVID-19, Will’s three younger sisters would go with him to Cedar Creek when he had therapy, says Molly Myers, Will’s mother. The girls would play together in a made-up fairyland beneath a large tree at the facility. “This is therapy for all of us,” Myers says. “They’ve grown up here. It looks different today because it’s COVID, but all of my kids get to be kids out here. We come out here, and we get to just be.”

Cedar Creek isn’t a fairyland for just the Myers family. The riders at Cedar Creek confidently command their horses and follow trail rides through toy Smurfs, berries, goblins, gnomes and dragonflies scattered along the path. At Cedar Creek, the goal is to lift spirits, give air-fives and hug horses — all while social distancing, says executive director Karen Grindler.

“If you get to hug a big, huge 1,200-pound breathing animal, it’s pretty satisfying even without a pandemic,” Grindler says. “They breathe, and you can breathe with them, and you can hold them, and you can hug them. And we’re all kind of in need of that right now.”

No horsing around with safety

Before you can hug a horse at Cedar Creek, visitors must first follow a series of protocols at a check-in table about 20 feet from Cedar Creek’s arena. Only Cedar Creek clients and their families can work with the horses during COVID-19.

A volunteer checks temperatures on wrists, followed by a series of wellness-related questions. Hand sanitizer or hand washing is required before entry. Extra masks are available, including Batman-themed ones to encourage younger children to wear them, volunteer Sarah Hait says.

COVID-19 precautions are strictly enforced at Cedar Creek. “If a rider comes and they don’t want to wear a mask, we have to tell them to go home,” Hait says.

To abide by COVID-19 regulations, Cedar Creek has also limited the number of people on site. It typically runs three eight-week semesters throughout the year, but the pandemic cut short the spring semester after one week. Before COVID-19, nearly 100 riders attended therapy each week, but now the staff assists only 40 riders weekly. Volunteer numbers have also decreased, going from more than 60 weekly volunteers to just two or three, Hait says.

Prior to the pandemic, riders required a Cedar Creek staff member to lead the horse. Depending on the extent of the rider’s disabilities, either one or two volunteers had to walk along either side of the horse, called sidewalkers. Although sidewalkers and leaders are needed, having two sidewalkers does not allow for social distancing. Because 60% of clients have severe disabilities that require two sidewalkers, rider numbers were reduced.

“It’s unfortunate that clients who need therapy the most, those with severe disabilities, cannot currently participate safely at Cedar Creek,” Grindler says.

For those who can ride with one volunteer, the lone sidewalker must be a family member or someone who has been quarantining with the rider. That way, the leader and the sidewalker can be six feet apart.

Fighting to stay financially stable

Because the majority of Cedar Creek’s clientele currently cannot attend therapy, revenue is down $70,000. The facility began a fundraiser Sept. 15 with a GoFundMe page and hand-addressed letters to supporters. Organizers hope to raise $100,000. This money would go toward equipment, horse care and revenue lost from canceling the spring semester. “We’re doing our best to fundraise,” Grindler says. “We hope the community comes through. We hope the people feel like they can’t live without Cedar Creek.”

Despite new regulations, Hait says she believes the situation is being handled well. “We’re here for the kids, and the kids need protection,” Hait says. “Everyone is pretty on board with that.”

Hot-to-trot videos

To ensure rider and staff safety, Cedar Creek published YouTube videos on horse care for the final seven weeks of the spring semester instead of in-person sessions. Grindler and her daughter, Katherine Schneller, created virtual lessons for 40 of their 96 spring riders. These lessons were riding how-to’s that prepared riders for their return to Cedar Creek.

“[The clients] loved virtual lessons — grooming, how to clean your horse, what the equipment is called, how to attach a saddle to a horse, how to lead a horse — something different each week,” Grindler says. “We made them funny.”

The videos instilled positivity in clients and allowed them to keep up with their riding education. Myers says the videos helped Will and her girls when they were confused by COVID-19. They reminded her children that Cedar Creek was still there for them.

“It was nice to have the continuity,” Myers says. “When Will was having a hard time, we would put on the videos to recalibrate. I think it was disorienting [for kids] to have all of your rhythms come to a halt. Will could think, ‘This is still a thing. I know horses. I know Karen. There are still constants.’”

Hoofing it home

Some clientele don’t have the opportunity to enjoy different activities in everyday life, regardless of the pandemic. So when the facility reopened July 8, it was one of the only out-of-the-house activities available to its riders. Grindler says she felt rejuvenated when the summer session started.

“I think it was because I got to see the joy of my riders smiling and hugging horses and laughing,” Grindler says. “That connection, that’s why we do what we do. It felt good just getting back into a swing of doing what we love to do.”

Cedar Creek’s clients are waiting for the pandemic to end to continue riding. In their eyes, the hidden goblins and gnomes on the trails await their arrival. They have to imagine a world without masks right now, Myers says, and luckily, fairytale creatures don’t have to wear masks. “It’s so nice to have a place where not only are they open, [where] we feel safe [and] it’s therapeutic, but a place that we all love,” Myers says. “We’re home. We’re home this fall.” 

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