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WATCH: Therapeutic Riding Center to host fundraiser

by Brandon Smith | October 4, 2021 at 4:04 a.m.

With the fall semester now in full swing, Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center is gearing up to host its first official fundraiser with a Southern Soiree at The Reserve on Oct. 23 in support of their growing equine-assisted therapy program.

The event will be from 5:30 to 9 p.m. and cocktail attire is suggested.

The inaugural Southern Soiree will be hosted in the outdoor gardens at the recently restored W.C. Brown house, now known as The Reserve, across from Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.

The evening's menu, curated by Chef Josh Garland, will feature ingredients reminiscent of a graceful Southern gathering, while cocktails and beverages will be provided by Hot Spring's Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Wally's World liquors, according to a news release.

"The STRC Event Committee is excited about the evening's entertainment of fine local musicians and live and silent auctions," the release said. "The auctions will take place in the conservatory and will include such fabulous items as the elegant and private Enclave Suite at The Reserve, a private dinner for 10 with Anthony Valinoti of DeLuca's Pizzeria, a waterfowl and big game hunt with a two-day/one-night accommodation on private land in southeastern Arkansas near Bayou Bartholomew, two-night stay at the Buffalo Point Inn amongst the best locations on the Buffalo River National Park, and a three-day/two-night adventure at the Diamond 4 Ranch (a rustic and remote working dude ranch) in the spectacular Wind River Mountains of Wyoming."

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"Our organization has been in the works for two years actually," Sunshine Therapeutic Riding Center executive director Katja Summerlin said. "We've been planning a lot and then COVID hit. So we've been operational since this spring.

"We started with a pilot program of eight weeks. We had seven riders in the program where we tested our horses, the flow of things and kind of worked out the kinks. And it was followed by our summer semester, which was 12 weeks, where we had 15 riders out every week," she said.

STRC partners with Kidsource Therapy -- which provides the therapists and clients, while STRC provides the horses and the facility -- and primarily focuses on occupational, physical and speech therapy on horseback.

"So what we're doing here is therapy," Summerlin said. "We are unlike the therapeutic riding; it's equine-assisted therapy and therapeutic riding is teaching a person with a disability to ride a horse, which is a service that we want to add, too, but that is still in production."

STRC currently has six horses that vary greatly in size to accommodate the movement each individual child requires for their specific needs. Hippotherapy utilizes the natural gait and movement of the horse to provide motor and sensory input.

"You utilize that movement to fire up the brain and regulate the nervous system to make learning possible," she said. "And so depending on the size of the child, the diagnosis, the debility of the child, and also where they all are in development, the therapist and me -- we try to match the ideal movement to the child and what they need. And sometimes it takes a couple of tries of, 'OK, let's start small.'"

Summerlin noted they recently had a rider on one of their smaller ponies named Scrim, but when they switched the rider to a bigger horse, they saw a "tremendous" change.

"It's a lot of trying out and getting the feeling right for it, but it's pretty amazing," she said. "I didn't believe it until I seen it in action. It's so fun also. You know, when you take on a horse, they go through a very rigorous evaluation process, and then when you see that horse helping a child finding her/his voice, it's just, I mean -- it's absolutely great."

While Summerlin knew, in theory, the extraordinary effects that horses could have on children, seeing it in action is on a whole other level, she said. Originally from Switzerland, she noted she grew up just down the road from a riding center run by one of the pioneers of the therapy in Europe.

"I knew what horses can do because it has been a lifelong passion of mine and I've seen miracles happen on horseback. But with the planning of the organization and everything, for most people, especially our board members, it has only been theory. So when we started the program, it was so validating to see it," she said.

"I mean, day one, first session ever, we had such a gigantic milestone with this one client that it made the mom cry and it made my husband cry, too. I knew this and it was so great to see what my horses can do for these kids. And so on a daily basis, we see progress," she said. "We see little steps -- gigantic steps sometimes -- that is, in a normal therapy setting, it would take a whole lot longer for this progress to emerge."

She noted they have witnessed children with apraxia, who can't speak, with "a certain horse on a certain surface, the input of the horse triggers, fires up the brain in a way that it made this little girl speak. And that is known in the industry that a lot of times, we see kids speaking their first words on horseback."

There are many ways to support the program, including volunteering, she said. The fall semester will go through Dec. 4.

"We need an army of volunteers to support one rider for one lesson," Summerlin said. "So if you have one child, you need a horse leader, you need a sidewalker, you need a therapist; and somebody who gets the horse ready. There's lots of people involved to make this session happen, so we are always looking for volunteers that are willing to come out and walk with us. It's a great workout. We walk 5 to 6 miles a day in the sand as you can imagine."

Persons interested in equine-assisted therapeutic service, volunteer opportunities, or a way to help support the Riding Center, can visit the STRC website at or call Summerlin at 501-762-3157.

STRC is located at 4992 Sunshine Road in Pearcy. Tickets for the Southern Soiree can be purchased at the following online locations or by contacting the STRC Fundraising Chair, Jenna Joubert.

"It hits the heart," said Summerlin. "Everybody who comes here, even though our volunteers, they love coming because it's such a positive and uplifting environment here. You will go home with a smile on your face that's guaranteed."

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