Riders gain confidence, skills through horses
For one young girl, autism and ADHD were a daily battle. She struggled in social situations and found it difficult to communicate her feelings to her family, leading to regular emotional meltdowns.
After taking part in a special program developed at ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship, however, the child has a different daily life experience. She speaks in full sentences, expresses emotion and is able to be in social situation with her family.
Such life-changing experiences are what the staff of ManeGait has strived for throughout its six years in operation at its facility just north of US 380 on Custer Road, said Marketing and Development Manager Heather Guarnera, whose first experience with ManeGait was as a volunteer.
"ManeGait, if you talk to a lot of our families, it's a place of community," she said. "It's a place where they can come and no one is looking at them, no one is judging them. [Parents] can talk with other parents in a very safe environment."
Founders Bill and Priscilla Darling made the 18-acre facility on Custer Road in McKinney possible. The program has grown from four weekly riders in 2008 to more than 135 weekly riders in 2014.
The 21 program horses range widely in breed, size and color, but all have three common traits: calm, quiet and practically "bomb-proof," Guarnera said. Each horse is purchased specifically for the program through donors.
The program serves riders from 58 cities in Collin, Denton, Grayson, Dallas and Rockwall counties.
In addition to eight full-time and nine part-time staff members, volunteers—about 350 per week—ensure the program is able to accomplish its mission: helping children and adults with disabilities move beyond their boundaries through the healing power of horses, Guarnera said.
"It's a place where not just the rider heals," Guarnera said. "I always say it's a healing place for the family. Everybody receives a benefit. As a volunteer I can tell you that I received way more than I ever gave. These families and these kids are the happiest, most positive people you will interact with, and you walk away a better person."
ManeGait has a waiting list for riders with disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. Therapeutic riding lessons with specially trained instructors focus on improving areas including: balance, endurance and muscle strength; weak brain area activation; confidence and social skills; and range of motion and circulation.
Instruction takes place in both an outdoor and a covered arena and the facility is outfitted with special ramps and a motorized lift for riders to be able to mount the horses more easily.
ManeGait is a Path Premier accredited facility—the highest accreditation a therapeutic riding facility can achieve through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
The nonprofit continues to raise the bar with new programs, Guarnera said. GaitWay to the Brain, a program developed by a ManeGait instructor, focuses on taking the rider through a series of activities to help them focus and calm down before taking a riding session. The program is now being presented by ManeGait on a national level.
Riders never pay more than 15 percent of what it costs ManeGait to provide lessons, Guarnera said. The nonprofit is at lesson capacity because of its 98-percent rider retention rate.
"For us to be able to continue to grow our program, it's a matter of funding," she said.
Fundraising and volunteers
Gala at the 'Gait
Oct. 4 at ManeGait
Individuals and companies gather for a western-themed evening that includes a "taste of" style dinner from multiple local chefs, silent and live auctions, live music and dancing. Tickets are $250.
Nov. 1 at ManeGait
Families flock to ManeGait's most popular fundraising event, a carnival featuring games, booths and fare from food trucks, plus a ride-a-thon trail ride for ManeGait riders. Tickets are $5.
More than 350 volunteers per week are needed at ManeGait and not all require being directly involved with horses. Volunteer opportunities include lesson volunteers, roustabouts, horse schoolers, fundraising and event team members as well as administration duties.