Saddling Up: How OU students are using horses to help people with disabilities

Just 80 miles south of Athens, a veteran who suffered a stroke was riding horseback, led by Ohio University students. His wife, watching her husband ride from afar, hadn’t heard his voice in two years.

He had been riding at OU Southern’s horse park for several sessions, and he began to burst into song.

“Home, home on the range,” he belted. “Where the deer and the antelope play.”

Everyone stared in disbelief as a man who hadn’t spoken a word in years began to sing.

That is just one of the miracles that happens every day at OU Southern’s horse park, said Kelly Hall, the director of the equine studies program.

OU Southern Campus’s equine program is one of five accredited international schools to certify instructors in therapeutic riding, attracting dozens of students to enroll in hopes of pursuing a career that could change someone’s life.

A program run by students


Only two full-time faculty members staff the program, leaving the rest of the work up to students and volunteers to keep the rates for riding low. OU Southern charges $45 for a private community riding lesson and $35 for private therapeutic lessons.

horses
Photo by Emily Gayton

OU’s Southern Campus offers an equine studies program that certifies instructors in therapeutic riding. Dozens of students have enrolled in the program.

“It takes a lot,” Hall said. “If you have one person in a wheelchair, you’re going to have to have two side walkers — one on each side — and somebody to lead the horse. You’re going to have to have an instructor. … It takes a lot of volunteers to make this program happen.”

To earn their associate degrees, students are required to participate in 25 hours of instruction with a minimum of two riders with disabilities at a time.

“The community therapeutic horsemanship center serves the purpose of allowing our students to earn their hours, but it also serves the tri-state community for people with challenges,” Hall said.

Unlike many other equine programs, OU Southern has its own horse park and barns for convenience of completing lab hours and maintaining control over curriculum, attracting students from places as far as Hawaii to participate in the therapeutic riding program.

Students also teach, care for the horses and assume other responsibilities alongside volunteers and part-time employees.

“I’ve always liked helping people, and I love horses,” Julia Glebins, a first-year student, said. “I’ve been obsessed with them my entire life. It just seemed like a natural fit.”

A horse’s strength


Horseback riding provides many benefits for people with physical disabilities. Riding develops a sense of coordination and balance and strengthens the same muscles used to walk, which can be especially useful for someone in a wheelchair.

“It benefits them to learn a different or better way of living,”Tabatha McKinney, who works at STAR Community Justice Center

“We have a couple riders who are paraplegic and in a wheelchair,” Hall said. “By putting someone on a horse and the horse walks for them, they’re exercising those muscles to help them hopefully gain some mobility.”

Glebins said she was touched when she was serving as a volunteer last year and saw significant progress in a boy she was assisting.

“One of our participants started out in a wheelchair and couldn’t hardly walk, and now he’s up walking on his own and doesn’t need very much assistance,” she said. “He rides on his own, too. … It’s pretty incredible.”

The warmth of a horse


The benefits of therapeutic riding go beyond what can be seen on the surface. Hall said emotional and mental therapy is a lot of what the program tries to provide through its lessons.

The park works with agencies for weekly lessons and has served foster care industries, regional mental health industries and more.

“It benefits them to learn a different or better way of living,” said Tabatha McKinney, who works at STAR Community Justice Center. STAR serves as an alternative to prison with the intent of rehabilitating nonviolent felony offenders and frequently works with the horse park.

horses
Photo by Emily Gayton

Students teach and care for the horses, among other responsibilities. The program attracts students from places as far away as Hawaii.

OU Southern is partnered with Safe Harbor, a domestic violence shelter in northern Kentucky. The two secured a grant to bring children to the park weekly for riding lessons.

“It’s fun,” Jacob Bowman, 11, said. “I learn stuff about horses. They’re fun to play with and cute. I like it here.”

Hall said OU Southern tailors programs to specific needs. In the case of Safe Harbor, a main goal is teaching kids to positively identify and cope with emotions.

“I love riding (the horses),” Keagan Thornton, 8, said. “I’ve learned about leading and riding and about my emotions.”

Horses have unique personalities just like humans, Hall said. People might be drawn to a particular horse and learn a lot about their feelings from interacting with the animal.

“The horses show what we don’t want to face,” McKinney said. “The horses can sense your emotions. … It gives us a therapeutic moment to talk about those emotions instead of stuffing it.”

Expansion of the program


Since OU Southern’s equine program began offering online courses in spring 2016, adjunct professor Mark Abell said he has seen an increase in enrollment. He said this semester he has his largest class size of 26 people in introduction to equine studies, with students from the Athens campus and high school students enrolling.

“It’s really caught on,” he said. “It’s interesting because in the online program, you have a wide variety of experiences. … It’s a really good way for us to go beyond just the campus.”

Online classes, which are heavy on economics and technology, focus on the commercial side of the horse industry, Hall said. She said the staff rewrote the entire curriculum to accommodate online courses.

“Technology is really important in the horse world, too,” she said. “The horse industry is very large. There’s about a million full-time jobs in the horse industry.”

Many students are interested in starting nonprofits related to horses, so Hall said the program created online courses on equine nonprofit development and management.

Hall said they are also adding a degree to the eCampus. There will be a soft launch in January and a full launch in fall 2018.

“That’s a big deal for us,” Abell said. “I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Abell said he was excited for the program to grow and continue to flourish because of all the good he sees come out of it every day.

“It’s an absolutely wonderful program,” Abell said. “Miracles come from it. … When you watch their expressions and the light bulb comes on, and they see all of that because of the interaction with the horses, it’s really powerful.”

Originally published for The Post on Sept. 28, 2017. Appeared in print Sept. 28, 2017.

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Being “Affrilachian”: Those who identify as both black and Appalachian have deep history

As the sun set on a cold February afternoon, 100 people gathered on and near Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium’s portico to speak out against rumors of a “resurgence” of the Ku Klux Klan in southeast Ohio.

Several speakers shared their stories to celebrate diversity in Athens and the surrounding region, one historically thought of as almost exclusively white. With an introspective rally as the backdrop, attendees wanted to prove an important point: Black lives matter, even in Appalachia.

Black people, who make up fewer than 5 percent of Athens County’s population and 9.1 percent of the Appalachian population, have long been overlooked in an impoverished region that is overwhelmingly white.

“When people say we need to fix the white problem first, you can’t fix one without fixing both,” Ada Woodson Adams, a Nelsonville resident and 1961 Ohio University graduate, said. “When people say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ it’s a cry out that we have not been heard or seen, and we have been systematically institutionalized.”

Frank X Walker, a professor of English and African-American studies at the University of Kentucky, invented the word ‘Affrilachia’ in 1991 in response to the marginalization of black people in the region. He penned the word in a poem as a way to explain the “invisibleness” of Affrilachians.

“A lot of scholars quickly embraced the word because it allowed them to recognize that diversity had not been a large part of the conversation when we talked about the 13-state region that officially was Appalachia,” Walker said. “They embraced the word and began to recognize that they had missed something.”

White people make up 83.6 percent of the people in Appalachia in comparison to the national white population of 63.7 percent, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

That lack of visibility creates a stigma against black people in Appalachia, Otis Trotter, the author of Keeping Heart: A Memoir of Family Struggle, Race, and Medicine, said. He spent a majority of his childhood in West Virginia before moving to Newcomerstown, Ohio in the ’60s, where he was subject to criticism because of his Appalachian and black roots.

“We still were looked on as black hillbillies,” he said. “They anticipated that we could be these typical black hillbillies, that we were unsophisticated and dumb.”

Segregation in Ohio

Data from U.S. Census Bureau

Ohio’s de facto segregation was more subtle at that time than the blatant racism in the Deep South, Adams said.

“Going Uptown, we didn’t have the same places you could go and eat if you wanted to go to the restaurant with your friends, because they would turn you away,” she said. “There was no sign, but they would tell you you weren’t welcome there.”

A more glaring and obvious form of racial discrimination were so-called “Sundown Towns,” or communities that kept out black people by law. The term was coined because the towns would sometimes have signs by their city limits stating black people must be gone by sundown. Some of those areas remain very white to this day, according to James W. Loewen’s book Sundown Towns.

“Things like that affect the psyche of people black and white,” Adams said. “It diminishes the strength of a community when you have racism.”

Provided via the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council

Integrated coal mining towns

Many black people migrated from the South to Appalachia to find work in the coal mining industry, as the Deep South lacked decent paying jobs for black workers. Trotter said his family moved from Alabama to West Virginia for that reason.

“My father was recruited by coal miners,” Trotter said. “He ventured out and tried to take jobs near where he lived, but he couldn’t find a paying job, so when the recruiters came, he took (them) up on (their) offer.”

A notorious integrated coal mining town was Rendville, located in Perry County. It was established by the Ohio Coal Mining Company in 1879, made up by primarily German immigrants and black families. Despite initial racial tensions, the town functioned much better than other integrated communities in Appalachia with a mixed race village council, Cheryl Blosser, office coordinator for The Little Cities of Black Diamonds, said.

The Little Cities of Black Diamonds is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history of coal mining regions.

“Rendville had a lot of opportunities and many other black miners moved there to work,” Blosser said in an email. “Because all of (the workers) were new and the miner owner paid the workers the same rate, some black families prospered better.”

(Provided via Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Penn State University Libraries) Major Fountain and children, Rendville, Ohio Perry County Ohio 1946.

Being black at Ohio University

Though OU was relatively progressive during times of de facto segregation, problematic policies were still in place.

John Newton Templeton, a freed slave who earned his bachelor’s degree from OU in 1828, was the fourth black college graduate in the nation and first in the Midwest.

Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium on College Green is named for Templeton and Martha Blackburn, the first black woman to graduate from OU in 1916.

“It is nice that OU educated (Templeton). However, there are some stains on that,” Bailey Williams, a freshman in the Templeton Scholars Program, said.

Templeton could not live in university housing with other students, so he lived in the log cabin near the Hocking River that now houses the Office of Sustainability and the Visitor Parking Registration Center.

More than 100 years later, Adams faced similar discrimination. Adams, who began her freshman year in 1957, said she could not join social sororities or fraternities during her time on campus because of the color of her skin. She also could not complete her student teaching in Athens County because OU had an agreement with local schools that they would not send black teachers to instruct students.

Adams also noted subtly segregated areas on campus. For example, black students often gathered in a room in the student center called the “Bunch of Grapes Room,” which white students nicknamed the “Bunch of Apes Room.”

“We have to take the good with the bad,” Williams said. “I feel like a lot of our history gets washed down looking at the good. We have to take it for what it is and look at the good and the bad.”

Though incidents like the painting of a hanged figure on the graffiti wall in September have left a sour taste in Williams’ mouth, he said overall, he has not experienced discrimination because of the color of his skin.

“There is a good diversity blend here (at OU),” Williams said. “It’s not much, but what we do have, it’s diverse.”

Racism in Appalachia today

2010 U.S. Census

Appalachians have made significant strides, Trotter said, but negative stereotypes surrounding those who identify as both black and Appalachian still exist.

“There is still a negative stigma,” Trotter said. “A lot of people tend to think about Appalachia as monolithic: They’re all white, they’re all poor. Many people still have that perception.”

The key to true integration of the region is to understand the differences among the population, Trotter said.

“We need to highlight a variety of people (from Appalachia) that are doing well, that are educated,” he said. “You can’t overlook that there are poor people … but you also have to try to do something to make people realize that yes, you can be poor but also intelligent and diverse.”

Originally published in The Post on the front page on April 6, 2017.