PINELLAS PARK - Saddle Up Riding Club has expanded its Equine Assisted Activities Program to create a Saddle Up for Heroes program specifically for veterans.
Angel Watson, a nine-year Air Force veteran, has been riding with Saddle Up’s EAAP for more than three years. Her progress inspired the riding club to create the new program for veterans.
“Riding has helped me with flexibility in my hips, my core strength is better, and I have improved both balance and stability,” said Watson, who uses a wheelchair and had it not been for riding, would not have improved as much as she has.
“It’s more than just relief from chronic pain,” added Jennifer Ellroy, another member of the program. “I have found a new social group and have made friends with the other veterans riders, volunteers, and horses.”
The pilot program for Saddle Up for Heroes was developed through a relationship with Bay Pines Veterans Hospital’s Recreational Department and funding from the US Olympic Foundation/Paralympics Foundation to fund programs that help veterans compete in local sports.
Kellie Sipos, founder and executive director of Saddle Up, did not need much to convince her to get a group of veterans together to train and compete.
“Showing is in my blood,” she said. “It’s what we do at Saddle Up through our able-bodied program, 4H, and Special Olympics for our mentally and physically challenged riders. We attend shows at least five times a year with riders. The first show we had the veterans attend, four of them were able to compete. They had a ball and took great pride in the ribbons they won.”
Sipos, a registered therapeutic riding instructor through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horseman, attended a three-day clinic at TROT in Tucson, Arizona. Topics included the different challenges veterans with special therapeutic needs face and how to set realistic goals for each rider.
Veteran riders are evaluated or referred through the Veterans Affairs recreational physicians’ therapist, who makes the first assessment of each individual veteran who has expressed interest in the program. The veteran then comes to SURC for an evaluation to determine if the program will benefit that individual and to rule out contraindications.
SURCS Veterans range in ages and challenges, from young soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, to Granada, Vietnam and Panama. Ages of veteran men and women range, with some in their 60s, and they ride for therapy with paralysis, amputations, strokes, traumatic brain injuries, chronic pain, and post traumatic stress disorder.
Saddle Up’s overall goal for its Heroes program is to promote self-confidence and build strength and balance.
For more information on how you could donate to the Saddle Up for Heroes Program, or to become a rider or volunteer, call 520-3132.