LoveWay Therapeutic Equestrian Services Empowers Kids Through Horses
Writer / Lois Tomaszewski
For the children who come to LoveWay Therapeutic Equestrian Services, the time they spend at the stable is “not just a pony ride.”
Executive Director Shelley Becker uses that declaration to illustrate that the services provided by her specially trained staff and volunteers make a difference in the lives of the children they see throughout the school year. It is as one Jane Allen, the superintendent of Middlebury Community Schools said, “a necessary part of our students’ curriculum.”
“We are here to give the students with special needs who we see every opportunity to grow and be empowered, to be all that they can be in life,” Becker says. “We are blessed to be able to do it through using a horse.”
Instructors at LoveWay are trained and certified as PATH (Professional Association of Therapy Horsemanship) instructors. This certification comes with high standards and training, something that is needed when helping the children gain confidence and addressing mobility and other physical issues.
LoveWay works with students in 15 school districts in Elkhart County, Indiana and Cass County, Michigan. Students with cognitive or physical disabilities make use of the services as part of their school day. Home-schooled students are also served in the evening or on Saturdays. Becker said her organization works with 90 different diagnoses and services are provided free of charge.
Equine Assisted Services help these children in many ways.
“Students are impacted physically through the movement of the horse,” Becker explains. “They are impacted socially by the volunteers who are incorporated into the sessions, and they are impacted emotionally with animals, like all of us are. They are also impacted cognitively, too.”
Students work with a team and the instructor. The team includes a horse walker, a person who leads the horse in the arena, and one or two side walkers, depending on the individual child’s needs. That means that volunteers are critical to the services each student receives, Becker says.
Volunteers are given extensive training and then assigned as their skills and knowledge improve. No prior knowledge of horses is required, nor is experience with special needs children. All volunteers receive the same training and start at the same level.
“We will teach you everything you need to know,” Becker says. “People are not asked to do any more than they are confident doing.”
A minimum of 175 volunteers are needed each school year. Time slots are available during the day, in the evenings and on weekends. As the organization gets ready to head into the school year, about 50 more volunteers are needed to fill that minimum requirement, Becker says.
The organization relies on donors to keep operations going. One popular fundraiser that has helped raise money is the Ride-A-Thon. Riders and their horses come to LoveWay to take part in an 8-mile trail ride. This has been going on for 28 years. The 2021 event was Sept. 25.
LoveWay was established 48 years ago. As detailed in the history page on the website: “LoveWay Projects, Inc. was founded by Gary and Sandy Weatherwax in 1973 in memory of their 16-year-old daughter, Laurie. While in high school, Laurie had taken a school trip to Augusta, Michigan to visit the Cheff Center. At that time, Cheff Center was the only therapeutic riding center in the United States.”
The visit cemented Laurie’s desire to help others with physical, mental or emotional disabilities, and to help her father, who had been paralyzed in an accident and required the lifetime use of a wheelchair. During a mission trip to Africa, Laurie was stricken with a fatal virus. It was in her memory that LoveWay was founded.
LoveWay is still going strong partly because of the organization’s ability to provide a specific need, Becker says.
“We have been able to give students with special needs an opportunity that they could not get anywhere else,” she explains. “We tell these students what they can do when so often they are told what they cannot do.”
To find out more about the organization or to donate, visit www.lovewayinc.org. LoveWay is located 54151 County Road 33, Middlebury. Call 574-825-5666 for more information.