by Bonnie Riverdahl
Imagine for a moment that you are a nine-year-old boy. Instead of playing on a little league team, taking swimming or tennis lessons, shooting baskets or enjoying other myriad activities typical of most nine-year-old boys, you spend much of your childhood in a hospital, sitting and waiting for your name to be called, having your limbs bent and muscles stretched — often painfully — tethered to a machine, dependent on a wheelchair, hoping to graduate to a walker. You’re a nine-year old boy with cerebral palsy and you’re different. Then one day you learn to ride a horse. You’re at Jamestown New Horizons and you fit right in!
The creation of Bonnie and Oliver Grueninger, Jamestown New Horizons provides therapeutic horseback riding to promote health and quality of life for people with disabilities. The Florissant-based facility began as a non-profit in 1985, but the story of the stables, the founders and their profound respect for the bond between humans and horses goes back many years.
Growing up on a 1,000-acre rice farm in Northeastern Arkansas, Bonnie Reynolds was always around horses and loved them. Her doting father presented her with a horse of her own and she began riding at age six. Bonnie left the farm to attend Blue Mountain College for Women in Blue Mountain, Mississippi, for two years. Then she transferred to Iowa State University where she earned a bachelors degree with a double major in telecommunication arts and home economics. She followed this with a second bachelors degree in education from Arkansas State University.
Her next move — to St. Louis — would shape the rest of her life. She took a teaching position at Griffith Elementary School in Ferguson, then taught home economics and history at the new Florissant High School. Away from the classroom, she stabled her horse, Firefly, at Bill Burton’s Stables in Florissant. One day, as Bonnie Reynolds was checking one of her horse’s hoofs, she met Oliver Grueninger, a kindred horse lover who owned five of his own. This unceremonious meeting led to romance, a marriage now in its forty-sixth year that produced one son, John, an agricultural pilot, and a lifelong partnership teaching others the skills — and joys — of horseback riding.
In 1962, the couple bought their own place — 20 acres of rolling hills in north county — and christened it Jamestown Riding School and Stables. For the next 23 years, children — and adults, too — traveled to Florissant for lessons in riding and life. They learned dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping, and hunt seat in group sessions and horsemanship camps. It was during this time that Bonnie Grueninger evolved into Mrs. G — a teacher admired equally for her horsemanship, wisdom and positive outlook. Safety, fun and learning all played a role in Jamestown’s riding lessons. As Mrs. G taught her young students to ride — usually on horseback herself — she helped them understand the virtue of patience, taught them that love is often spelled w-o-r-k, and helped build riding and life skills, along with treasured memories.
Mrs. G was not only teaching, but learning — developing a growing interest in therapeutic horsemanship. Other friends in her “horsy circle” had already embraced this concept, but the Grueningers held back, concerned about potential liability issues. Then one day they were approached by a representative of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association; Jamestown Riding School’s exceptional safety record had impressed the organization, and they hoped the Grueningers would consider implementing a program for people with disabilities.
Many of these types of programs evolve after aspiring riders with disabilities seek lessons, and the stable decides to pursue certification. This wasn’t the case with Jamestown. Bonnie and Oliver spent nine months researching details, investigating specialized insurance, navigating the mountains of paperwork and maze of policy required for 501(C)3 not-for-profit status, forming a corporation, assembling a board of directors, and securing seed money and prospective future funding. They took a methodical approach to everything, and by the time Jamestown Riding School was approved and reborn as Jamestown New Horizons, they were ready to go. The new program was launched on September 7 — Oliver’s birthday — in 1985 with 18 children with disabilities already enrolled as students.
The phrase “reverence for life” aptly describes Mrs. G’s philosophy, and Jamestown New Horizons allowed her to combine her love for people and horses and take it to a new level, enhancing the lives of children with disabilities. Bonds between people and animals are almost as old as time, but over the years, the role of animals as more than companions or protectors has grown dramatically. From guide dogs for the blind to support dogs to monkeys (whose overall agility and intelligence make them ideal helpers for paraplegics), animals are playing a larger role in heightening the quality of life for people who need assistance. Therapeutic horsemanship is another link in that lengthening chain.
Jamestown New Horizons horses not only relate non-judgmentally to riders with disabilities, but can also liberate them physically and emotionally. Take, for example, our nine-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. The six-fold movement that comes from a horse’s back when it is walking — up and down, side to side, back and forth, all simultaneously — gently and rhythmically travels through the rider’s body. This complex rotational movement cannot be duplicated in clinics or hospitals. It takes a JNH horse roughly 150 strides to walk one time around the facility’s indoor arena. In that one trip, the rider’s pelvis and spine have experienced 150 rotational movements; in a typical lesson — 10 times around the ring and 1,500 rotational movements.
And while it is physical therapy, it doesn’t feel like it. The horse’s strides challenge the rider’s posture and balance with infinite variation that machines cannot mimic. In fact, a therapy horse can replace a roomful of rehab equipment.
Another key element of equine-assisted therapy is psychological. These special students are accepted as they are; they interact with the horses, staff and other riders, gaining valuable social skills. Though the students may never outgrow their disabilities, the therapy helps them develop methods to achieve their highest potential.
For two years, Jamestown catered to both non-disabled riders and students with disabilities. But the demands of the new program were significant. Mrs. G had to tackle a greatly-expanded administrative role. Each special student required a team to conduct the lesson — one person to lead the horse and a walker on each side of the animal to remind the rider to “sit up tall,” watch spinal alignment, and prevent any possible mishaps. The extra hands and attention needed for children with disabilities limited the resources available to work with non-disabled students. A choice had to be made, and Mrs. G — with so much time and effort already invested in the program and with the awareness of its value — opted to phase out general lessons and focus on therapeutic riding.
Over the past 24 years, JNH has provided more than 30,000 hours of therapy to people with disabilities, the majority of whom are under- or uninsured. Many come from single-parent households with limited financial resources. At the outset, the program drew riders with physical conditions: cerebral palsy, epilepsy, accident injuries. Along with these were students with mental retardation, autism and other cognitive and developmental disabilities. From only two or three autistic students when JNH began, the autistic rider segment has grown to roughly 50 percent in 2008.
Just as the riding experience helps the physically disabled build muscle tone and balance, it helps all JNH riders build self-esteem. Mrs. G’s approach is to go slowly to allow children to learn to do things the right way. The lessons provide a series of small triumphs — learning to mount alone or with minimal assistance, mastering the trot, helping to groom the horse, and creating a partnership with the animal. And just as important as these is the joy that comes with the accomplishments. In the words of one JNH student’s father, “I just want my daughter to be happy.”
Mrs. G’s hope is that the program will become a focal point of the students’ lives, and that the lessons they learn — patience, discipline and the rewards of hard work — will serve them long after childhood ends. Ninety-four percent of JNH riders are under 15 years of age, most beginning at age two or three. The time they remain in the program varies; some are with JNH for a year, others have been on hand since the beginning.
Last year, the program provided 1,071 hours of therapy to 75 children with disabilities from across metropolitan St. Louis. Jamestown New Horizons has been praised for its achievements, safety record and innovations; JNH designed the country’s first wheelchair mounting ramp to be approved by the Americans with Disabilities Association. Their ramp is much less steep than most others, which require someone to push the rider’s wheelchair up to the mounting platform; it can also be accessed from either direction, accommodating students with right or left side strengths and weaknesses. Mrs. G explained, “We are here to help these riders toward independence, and that begins immediately, with a ramp they can navigate on their own.”
Serving these students demands a dedicated, well-coordinated effort, and the people involved in JNH are exceptional. The team consists of: Mrs. G — at 72, the energetic program director; Oliver — 76 years old and the number one volunteer; 65 other volunteers; five riding instructors; both physical and occupational therapists; and a new friend — Tilly, a Doberman Pinscher puppy. Mrs. G credits her volunteers with much of the program’s success. “They’re dedicated and invested in our work,” she commented. “They’re put through rigorous training — and they deliver!”
The main stars of the program are the horses. Jamestown New Horizons horses are gentle, well mannered, well trained and much loved. The typical lifespan for a horse is 22 to 25 years; several JNH horses have lived to their mid thirties, and one pony reached age 43.
Some of the horses are donated, but not all horses offered are suitable for the work — they must make the grade from the outset. Mrs. G explained, “Horses are natural athletes with finely-tuned reactions. They like to feel they can escape situations. If they’re surrounded, they can panic. With three walkers per rider and three to four riders in each lesson group, the panic mechanism could automatically trigger in an edgy, less docile horse.” But all the horses in the program are tolerant to a fault. And once a horse is accepted by JNH, it’s with them for life.
One reason the therapeutic program was able to get up and running so quickly was that the horses were used to being ridden by inexperienced riders and children. Even so, they had to have additional training to accustom them to the sights, sounds and feel of wheelchairs, braces, walkers and other mobility aids. With many hours of diligent training, they came through with flying colors.
As “animal people” know, caring for animals demands time and effort — horses probably more so. The Grueninger’s work day begins early — 5:30 a.m. — and lasts 12 to 15 hours, seven days a week. Operating Jamestown New Horizons isn’t just a job, or even a career, it’s a major commitment.
Funding for JNH comes from several sources. The Productive Living Board of St. Louis County has provided support for 23 years, and JNH just received it’s third two-year grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health, allowing them to expand services for the under- and uninsured. They’ve also received some corporate grants, along with donations from civic organizations — the Optimists, Lions and American Legion. The balance of their funding is largely grass roots — friends and friends of friends, former students, the general public. And like a number of smaller non-profits lacking deep pocket or “umbrella” donors, JNH could be hurt by a tightening economy.
Approximately 20 percent of the yearly budget comes from an annual dinner auction. The 24th of these is scheduled for Saturday, September 20, 2008 at Machinists Hall (St. Charles Rock Road near Hwy. 270). The public is invited to attend and welcome to donate silent auction and oral auction items (restaurant or retail gift certificates, nice wines, home goods, tickets to sporting or entertainment events, gift baskets, etc.). For more information or to register, call (314) 741-5816 or e-mail email@example.com.
Perhaps nothing conveys more powerfully Jamestown New Horizons’ mission than its logo: a drawing of an empty wheelchair next to the words “Gone Riding.” As for the impact of the program, a little girl rider may have said it best. Each time she and her mother come to JNH, she remarks, “We are at the beautiful place.”