Morning Dove Therapeutic Riding Offers Equine-Assisted Services
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photographer / Mariah Krafft
Twenty years ago, Morning Dove Therapeutic Riding, Inc. was born. A nonprofit organization offering equine-assisted services to child, adolescent and adult participants with physical, cognitive, behavioral and/or emotional disabilities, Morning Dove Therapeutic began on a family farm when a neighbor’s child with a disability began riding in the family’s backyard.
“Over time more riders joined, and for the first decade the organization was operated out of different people’s family farms before they obtained their own facility,” says Bailee Reynolds, development director.
Now they have 13 horses with the capacity for 15. Each horse can have between eight and 10 riders per week.
Reynolds calls their five-member staff a “small but mighty team.” They do, however, need an army of volunteers to keep the program running.
Lessons, which run from mid-March to mid-December from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, are $45 each and last 45 minutes. They serve those starting at age 4. Currently their oldest rider is 65, but there is no age limit.
There are three riders per class. Every rider has some kind of emotional, physical or cognitive challenge. Roughly 70% of riders have autism. Others have physical disabilities, and still others have suffered a traumatic brain injury or have cerebral palsy. Some struggle with anxiety and depression.
The summer session lasts 10 weeks, and the fall session, which starts in mid-September, lasts 12 weeks. Riders pick a time and day for their lesson, and that’s their slot for the entire session. They work on horsemanship skills, and verbal cues of “whoa” and “walk on.” They also learn to trot and steer.
“Our instructor creates their lesson plans based on the most advanced rider in the class and then tailors it down from there,” Reynolds says. “We can’t pair riders by skill level because it’s all based on parent schedules.”
Most of the people who come to Morning Dove have either been referred by doctors or parents. Children come because families are seeking fun alternative therapy.
“Kids may not even know they’re in therapy, but we’re working on certain things that will help them progress,” Reynolds says.
Unfortunately, therapeutic riding isn’t recognized as a therapy for insurance purposes, and the staff hopes that will change in the future. They do, however, lower their costs significantly to make it affordable for families.
Morning Dove partners with the VA Domiciliary, a homeless veteran center on the east side, to allow veterans to learn about and connect with horses. They offer the same type of program for Teen Challenge, an at-risk group in Lebanon.
One popular exercise is called “getting your horse in the box.” The handler has to gain the horse’s trust, and without a lead rope or a halter persuade the horse to stand in a box that is on the ground.
“You have to think of ways to communicate with the horse to get them to do what you want, without being overpowering,” Reynolds says. “There’s a lot of frustration and anger that might come out because it’s not an easy task to calm yourself and figure out how to best communicate.”
It can be helpful, however, because horses mimic our personalities and mirror our emotions. In other words, they understand feelings.
“Horses are a good way to learn to re-interact with the world,” Reynolds says.
Although the horses see many different individuals on a weekly basis, they are professionals.
“When they have that individual on their back, they know what they need to do to be the best outlet for that person at that time,” Reynolds says. “It’s amazing to see the bond that’s created.”
Located on a lush, 40-acre property, Morning Dove provides a setting not only for the riders, but also for the parents who have that hour per week to read a book, take a walk and decompress while their child is getting instruction. As such, the lesson serves to re-energize both the student and the parent.
Though they love the current space, the staff is outgrowing it and plans to build on a piece of property in Whitestown in the next few years, which will provide more room and hopefully more horses.
There are other therapeutic riding centers in central Indiana, but none as close to Indianapolis, which makes partnering with inner-city youth easier. For instance, this fall they’ll start a program called Lead Changes with Wayne Township students.
“It’s great for those kids who have never been on a farm or near livestock,” Reynolds says. “They learn what it is to care for an animal.”
The staff is currently trying to get more visibility in the community. For instance, they have a program called Sidekicks, for which they take two miniature horses into the community to assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, schools and hospitals, to allow folks to pet them, groom them and feed them treats.
“People really light up when they see Duke and Shelby, who are 19-year-old brother and sister,” Reynolds says. “We want people to know we exist. I feel like we’re this hidden gem no one knows about.”
Morning Dove Therapeutic Riding is located at 7444 West 96th Street in Zionsville. For more information, call 317-733-9393 or visit morningdovetrc.org.