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Saturday, 25 September 2010 00:00

Valerie James and “Ride for Joy”

At 4:45 today, Brandi patted her horse’s neck.

Two months ago Brandi experienced profound nausea every time she came to the area, mounted her horse, or experienced any one of a number of equine aromas. For these volunteers, a child who vomits unexpectedly when riding, is just another challenge. At seven years old Brandi loves horses, but for unknown reasons she is extremely sensitive to tactile sensations. This evening her father and mother were beaming and taking photographs as Brandi circled the arena, balancing, trotting, and at last….petting her horse.


Valerie James, executive director for “Ride for Joy,” spoke about the program last week at the 36th Street Garden Center Bistro. She spoke of her childhood spent in the farm country of Ohio and her years at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston where she worked in international marketing and as program director for an ovarian cancer outreach program.  Valerie exudes a confident serenity that belies the determination and work ethic that has made her a dynamic advocate for Therapeutic Riding and the needs of children suffering from a wide variety of physical and developmental problems.

Asked her first whether she had always been a rider.  “Not, really,” she answered. “I grew up in a rural area, but I really I took up riding when I moved to Boise. I’d been working intensely for quite a few years, and I kind of took the chance to slow down a little.” Asked if it was her love of horses that spurred her involvement with Therapeutic Riding, she answered, “Actually, no…it was my brother.  When his son was diagnosed with Autism and I was too far away to help him and his family, I became very aware of the difficulties faced by the parents of children with severe disabilities.“

While parents work both at home and at their jobs, provide care and medical treatment, and overcome financial challenges, she explained, often there are few opportunities to relax and just have fun. “To see the joy on the faces of the parents as they watch their child laughing and smiling and making progress physically and developmentally… that is the part that really gets to me.”

Valerie started out as a volunteer, or “walker” in the program and soon became immersed. “Tom Boyd deserves a lot of credit,” she says. “He got this started in Boise by establishing a program in conjunction with the Sagebrush Equine Training Center for the Handicapped (SETCH) in Hailey.” According to Valerie, so many children need this kind of NARHA-certified instruction that the waiting list was always long. In 2007 Jan Hermann, owner of Once Upon A Horse in Eagle, spearheaded an effort to raise enough funds to help the program grow and become an independent nonprofit called Ride for Joy.

In 2009, Ride for Joy moved to Boise, making its home in a beautiful new indoor arena at Pierce Park Stables, which allows for a longer riding season than was possible in previous outdoor arena locations, an increase the number of both instructors and trained horses, and the ability to eventually offer services to a larger number of children.  “We whittled down the waiting list for awhile,” she says ruefully, “but the list is
growing again. It is really hard to keep up with the need and absolutely vital to maintain our current quality of service.” Right now the program offers classes for six weeks in the Fall, four in the winter, six in the spring, and eight-week courses in the summer.

When funding becomes tight, sessions are delayed or shortened, but horse board and upkeep continue all year long. The program needs everything from bags of shavings, hay, grain, and supplements, to a horse trailer or storage trailer. Ultimately a continuing endowment would allow for more efficient services on a dedicated property near town, horses owned by the program rather than leased, and expanded programs to serve the waiting list, which is currently running at 10-12 children.

“Since the children stay in the program for several years, the waiting list keeps growing, even as our ability to serve slowly expands,” Valerie explains. Being responsible for the well being of the staff of six horses means that even when funding is short, the responsibilities do not fluctuate.

When asked what she does for fun, Valerie had to stop and think. “That is actually how I met Cherie. She taught a workshop and the message I came home with had to do with finding time for your own needs even when you are caught up, immersed in something like this. I hadn’t really thought about it, but that hit home. So… I love to garden and my husband and I get away with our family to McCall. Of course, I have piles of books to read…”


Today seeing saw the spotless facility, the gleaming coats of the horses, the neatly organized learning materials, the shining tack, and especially modified equipment, one begins to get an inkling of the kind of investment of time and capital this seemingly simple operation requires. “We want all our animals to be top quality, not only in terms of training—which is very complex in itself, but in health and grooming as well. We want the children to have a sense of pride in what they are doing, and we want to demonstrate that care and professionalism in every aspect of the program.”

This attention to detail can be seen in every thing from the freshly scrubbed storage shed that was drying in the sun, to the three borrowed trailers full of instructional materials, saddles, and tack. A waiting area is roped off for parents and siblings according to NAHRA code and instructors and volunteers move
quietly together like a well-oiled machine.

Visitors (and photographers) are diplomatically discouraged from moving too close to either the horses or the children, since both are hard at work and concentrating on each other. Valerie explains that a complex relationship that must be established among the instructors, the “leaders” (leading the horse when necessary), and one or two volunteer “walkers” who provide spotting for the riders.

“Our six horses are on lease to us, donated by owners who want them to have a full life, but aren’t able to work with them.  Each one is carefully trained and prepared before being allowed to begin working with the kids.  It is important that the owners are willing to let the horses go, although they visit from a distance, because each horse becomes like a guide animal and has to maintain a consistent relationship with both the children and the instructor. So we have to limit the outside contact and keep the animal’s attention engaged. Sometimes that can be isappointing to volunteers who love to work with animals.”

Do these well-groomed beauties ever get bored with the slow turns around the covered arena, the repetition of exercises in counting, grooming, going forward, etc. “They would,” she answered immediately, “but that is part of the work of our coordinator, Kenna Moody, (also a District 19 resident). She makes sure each animal gets the trail ride or the show exercises that are challenging. Then they can be patient and focus on this work during lessons.”

At evening drew near in the Boise foothills, Brandi (who seldom speaks) ordered her horse to go “On.” Grinning joyfully, the little girl in her pink helmet dismounted, and—with a little encouragement—gave her horse a loving caress and took a big step toward being an independent rider.

(First of a two-part series on the Ride for Joy program in Boise.)


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