Horses help students with array of disabilities

The connection between humans and equines is clear to Donna Roland, founder and executive director of Open My World Therapeutic Riding Center in Leander. She taught special education in California for 27 years before moving to Texas in 2008 to care for horses, her lifelong passion.

"I moved here because I wanted a horse property, and it was cheaper here than in San Diego. But God had a different plan because I got bored after five or six weeks," she said. "I thought, 'OK, I have 30-plus years of horse experience and 27 years of special education work.' And it kind of seemed like a natural fit."

Open My World offers students with disabilities the opportunity to ride, groom and care for horses. The nonprofit works with riders—mostly ages 4–12 but also some teens and adults—who have physical, emotional and behavioral therapy needs.

Sessions are tailored to the rider's abilities and aim to improve skills and confidence. Students may brush the horse's mane and tail, affix the saddle and ride through a sensory trail featuring a variety of activities that exercise muscles and improve motor skills.

Roland said she has seen students' abilities improve dramatically through weekly therapy sessions. John, a 20-year-old student with autism, has learned to dress himself and wash his hair using skills from equine therapy sessions, Roland said.

"For some of the kids we work with, this may be the only time in the week they have empowerment and control, while they're sitting on a 1,000-pound horse," she said.

The nonprofit provides therapy for riders with a range of disabilities, including autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, visual impairments and emotional disorders.

The 3-acre property is designed to welcome students into a natural learning environment that also includes a petting zoo, small koi pond and riding arena. Roland said some neighboring property owners allow Open My World students to ride in their pastures as well. The center is an approved Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship facility staffed with two equine therapists, a behavioral therapist and one volunteer coordinator.

Leander Lock Up to fund a new roof for the riding arena

On July 9, several Leander community leaders plan to participate in a fundraiser to benefit Open My World Therapeutic Riding Center. The following people volunteered to be locked in the city jail until they can raise $500 to help fund a new roof over the riding arena:

  • Chris Fielder, Leander mayor
  • Jason Dishongh, Leander city councilman
  • Bridget Brandt, Leander Chamber of Commerce president
  • Greg Minton, Leander chief of police
  • Bill Gardner, Leander fire chief
  • Dana Burns, Leander ISD
  • David Dennis, Dennis Steel Co.
  • Michael Davenport, Glemco
  • Jeff Johnson, Hill Country Bible Church
  • Michael Holloway, HD Electric
  • Troy Unger, Advanced Properties
  • Derrick Chubbs, parent of student

Founder and Director Donna Roland said riders in 2012 lost two months of therapy time because of inclement weather and daytime scheduling conflicts. Building a roof over the arena will help eliminate this problem and increase the center's capacity for students by about 55 percent, she said.

The nonprofit aims to finish the roof by the end of the year at a total cost of $48,000. Roland said the nonprofit still needs items to add to gift baskets and more volunteers to be jailed. Open My World also needs year-round monetary donations, horse sponsorships and volunteers.

Open My World Therapeutic Riding Center, 1020 CR 270, Leander, 512-259-6665,