When a fire destroyed the barn housing 12 horses for the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program last July, executive director Breeana Bornhorst was not sure how the lessons would continue.
Just over six months later, the program has a new home, the horses have been reunited and the spring session is planned to start right on time.
"We are now boarding at Little Full Cry Farm in Clifton and we're thrilled," Bornhorst said. "It was really fun the first time we got the horses back together. They were so excited to see each other."
Bornhorst said her group has submitted a special use permit application, one of the first steps toward making Little Full Cry Farm its permanent home.
At the time of the fire, the barn they were using was almost too small for their needs, she said. The new barn and riding facility is bigger, easier to clean and provides more space for riders and their helpers.
Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding is an equine therapy organization, following the belief that riding horses helps strengthen the coordination skills and core strength in children and young adults with various disabilities or physical limitations. The movement of a rider's hips while on the horse mimics walking, which helps to loosen stiff joints and improve posture.
The 65 students enrolled at the time of the fire have not missed many lessons, Bornhorst said, and many have enrolled for the spring session, which will begin in March at Little Full Cry.
"We were actually able to finish the summer session, which ended six weeks after the fire," she said. Eager volunteers and riders worked together to finish their lessons at barns across the area.
TOOTIE RIVERA’S 6-year-old son, Michael, has been taking lessons at Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding for three years.
"The fire put a hold on some of Michael's riding, but getting him back on a horse and involved will be very good for him," Rivera said. "This kind of therapy is very beneficial to him, and it's been shown to me that riding on a horse has given him extra trunk strength. He’s learning how to balance on a horse has helped him tremendously."
Her son's confidence has grown as well, she said.
"He used to be very afraid of the horses because he was so small," Rivera said. "We don't have that problem anymore."
Rivera credits the volunteers who walk beside her son during his lessons for his transformation, saying their patience helped assuage her own fears and calm his worries.
"I know it helps him and the people there are so friendly and knowledgeable, it makes me want to take him regardless of the mood he's in," she said.
Reneé McGinnis and her son both volunteer with Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding, a place he would live at if she would let him.
"He used to be so afraid of heights, but I wanted to get him into the program because I heard how much it could help him," said McGinnis, who has been involved with the program for three years.
The two first paid a visit to the farm to attend a training session for volunteers and learn more about the program. By the end of the afternoon, both were anxious to get on a horse.
"These are really good people who give over 100 hours of their time each year to this program," she said.
The new facility will give the horses more room to run, McGinnis said, which means less muck to take out of the stalls at the end of the day.
"That frees up our time to do other things, like work with the horses and take care of them," she said.
Angee Quattro enjoys the program so much, she drives down from Sterling to donate her time.
She helped organize a Booz Allen Hamilton workday at Little Full Cry Farm just as the horses were moving in. Co-workers she normally sees in suits and skirts were laughing and joking, tossing around bales of hay and shoveling dirt with the volunteers.
"The volunteers here are so dedicated, they're willing to do anything and everything to help out the horses and the riders," Quattro said. "They're inspiring."
The first day of lessons at the new facility will be "pretty emotional," Quattro said. "I used to teach two autistic children and the difference it made for them was just amazing to see. You watch these kids, some of whom are in wheelchairs and can barely move, they get up on a horse and it's totally different."
Bornhorst said two big events and fund raisers are planned for 2008, including a golf tournament in May and the Ride to Thrive horse show, featuring riders from several therapeutic riding programs, at Bull Run Park in the fall.
But for now, her eyes are on March and the first session of lessons in the program’s new home.
"We are just so excited to get started again, to get our riders back out," she said.