Raising a child with a disability can fill a life with uncertainty. Being responsible for an adult with a disability is often overwhelming. But creating a place for individuals with disabilities that offers joy, hope and a little bit of adventure opens up a world of possibilities.
For six years now, Simple Changes Therapeutic Riding Center has been such a place. Tucked away on the Mason Neck Peninsula in Lorton, VA, Simple Changes teaches individuals of all ages with emotional, physical and cognitive challenges how to ride a horse.
The horses reach riders in different ways – minds engage, bodies are made stronger and souls expand. Our holistic approach helps each rider reach his or her full potential by creating a sense of place and belonging for riders and caregivers. At Simple Changes, hearts sing with the joy of accomplishment – not just for the riders, but for its founders.
When my daughter, Megan, was two, she was hospitalized with unremitting seizures. Between the anti-convulsants and the seizures, she was unconscious for two weeks. When a medication was found that tempered the seizures enough for her to regain consciousness, she came home. Then reality struck. There was no diagnosis at the time, but the doctors were pretty sure she would never walk or talk and that her severe mental retardation confined her to a life of total dependence. I remember thinking, so this is it? What do I do now? I was completely unprepared to create a life for Meg.
It was all so bleak. Surely a good fairy would come along and make her better? Well, that didn’t happen. But step by step her dad, brothers and I pieced together a life for Meg that has been extraordinary in its brightness and possibility. Or maybe, step by step, Megan’s extraordinary joy and spirit pieced together lives of purpose and compassion for her dad, brothers and me.
I had always loved horses but had no previous experience with them. One day, I read an article about how horseback riding could help people with disabilities, so when Meg was four, I signed her up for lessons. At that point, she couldn’t sit upright on the ground. Through riding, her trunk strengthened so that she could sit. No longer did each cold become pneumonia as her increased trunk stability and overall improved tone helped her ward off respiratory infections. The movement of the horse’s walk – imitating the movement of a human’s pelvis while walking – taught her a reciprocal gait. And she had fun! Riding got her outside in the fresh air surrounded by people who challenged, appreciated and accepted her.
I was hooked. Before long, Jenny Spain – an experienced horsewoman and certified therapeutic riding instructor – and I started Simple Changes, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to enrich the lives of individuals with disabilities, their families and community through exceptional programs, especially therapeutic horsemanship.
We had no seed money, but we had our business incorporated in Virginia and filed for nonprofit status. Jenny had two horses – so they became our “herd.” We negotiated with the Bureau of Land Management to operate out of a barn on their Mason Neck property. We signed on community members as volunteers and opened our doors in 2005 with 20 clients.
Six years later, we now have 50 clients, six horses and a three-year waiting list. We also have a satellite location in Catlett, VA. Growth of the Center has been careful and sure. Simple Changes was just chosen by The Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington as one of 70 outstanding nonprofits in the area.
Simple Changes was founded with the knowledge that riding and caring for horses can significantly improve the lives of individuals with disabilities. In addition to providing equine assisted activities to children and adults with disabilities, we assist Warriors in Transition through our Horses for Heroes program and work with youth-at-risk from local schools.
Corliss Wallingford, Executive Director, Simple Changes Therapeutic Riding Center
For more information about Simple Changes, please call 703.402.3613 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.