Grace Rides – a therapeutic place for special people

Nala Van Valen, on horseback, enjoys the noodle therapy at Grace Rides. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Equine therapy facility working wonders

Sherry Hall is on a mission to help special people with unique challenges. As director of Grace Rides, an equine-assisted therapy facility in Niceville, she makes that happen in a big way, five days a week.

Hall is founder of Grace Rides, a non-profit faith based organization formed in 2009. The facility provides safe and effective equine therapy and horsemanship training for students of all ages with emotional, physical, cognitive and developmental challenges.

“Riding opens up a new world of experiences for people of all ages. It is a great vehicle for encouraging otherwise boring things like exercise and rehab work because we all have such a great time together around the horses. Our equine volunteers are the unique facilitators of this therapy, and our volunteers help each person feel special, important and valued,” director Sherry Hall said.

Lana Van Valen suits up for a ride at Grace Rides. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

The path to Grace Rides was a natural one for Hall who grew up on a farm in Marianna. Her mother was a special education teacher, and Hall earned a bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation counseling and clinical psychology.

Hall spent the first year creating a safe environment for the clients of Grace Rides. Attention to detail is evident at the facility. Each student is surrounded by group of volunteers along with instructor Beth Doolan for every session.

Each new student must fill out an extensive questionnaire, and approval from doctors and therapists are necessary to get started with the program.

Each therapy is custom designed to accommodate the individual’s needs. The student is custom fitted with tack, helmet and boots sized just right. Specialized saddle attachments are available for unique physical challenges. Currently Grace has 11 horses of various sizes and breeds making the pairing with students suitable.

Therapy horse Cochise enjoys getting a tickle from a volunteer. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

How does this type of fun qualify as therapy?  The rhythmic nature of the horse’s gait and the animal’s body heat provide a natural vehicle for physical therapy, loosening tight muscles, helping to strengthen the rider’s muscle tone and encouraging digestion and circulation. Other physical benefits can include improvements in balance, posture, coordination, reflexes, fine and gross motor skills, and hand-eye coordination. The repetition of carefully selected therapeutic activities allows the rider to concentrate on their basic skills and then add new more challenging activities as the rider develops.

“The riders bond quickly with the horses as they groom, feed, and ride. They develop responsibility, patience and compassion as they care for the horses. The excitement of riding brings new experiences and a sense of wellbeing,” Hall said.

Parents and siblings of students have the opportunity to engage in the horse riding experience as well with special days geared just for siblings.

This is the second year Wesley Van Valen of Fort Walton Beach has been coming to the facility with daughters six-year-old Nala and 2-year-old Lana. Nala has sickle cell.

“The therapy has worked wonders for Nala, she is better… relaxed and has less symptoms,” Van Valen said with a smile.

Susan Vallée of Santa Rosa Beach has been taking her son Leo to Grace for a year.

“I can’t say enough great things about Grace Rides. Sherry Hall has created a calm, caring environment for children and adults with physical and developmental needs. My son’s favorite thing to do is jog. He gives the volunteers a real workout with every lesson! Under the patient guidance of his trainer Beth he has learned to post and to trot (slowly). Since beginning equine therapy we’ve noticed his confidence increase, his stride improve and his coordination even out,” said Vallée.

“Grace Rides is a tremendous program – and they always need help in some form. It is a not-for-profit. Donations, volunteers and buckets of apples are always welcomed and greatly appreciated.”

Grace Rides relies totally on contributions to support its efforts and is a member of PATH, Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International.

Grace Rides is located just north of State Road 20 off of Range Road on Hickory Street in Niceville. For more information, go to: www.gracerides.com.

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