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River Valley Riders offers a special riding experience in Afton

River Valley Riders kicked off its first full season April 24 at its Afton location. The nonprofit corporation provides horse-related therapy to children and adults.

Woodbury's Miracle Field will provide children with special needs the opportunity to play baseball, but down in Afton the children have another opportunity.

Afton's River Valley Riders, a program that provides horseback riding for children with special needs, kicked off its season on April 24.

"Most of these kids are just thrilled to ride a horse," said Executive Director Joan Berg.

River Valley Riders is a nonprofit corporation that provides horse-related activities, including therapeutic riding and driving to children and adults, by addressing needs in the areas of physical, sensory, neurological and mental health.

River Valley Riders had previously held classes at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Lake Elmo.

However, in 2009 the group purchased property at 2007 Neal Avenue South in Afton for a permanent location.

River Valley Riders also has satellite locations in East Farmington, Scandia and Marine on St. Croix.

"Think of Afton as the home of River Valley Riders," Berg said. "We've worked really hard to get to this point."

The Afton site was completed in the fall.

In Afton, River Valley Riders has 38 acres that include an outdoor arena.

Future plans call for horse trails, an indoor arena, a barn and fenced-in pastures.

Currently the horses are loaned to River Valley Riders and brought in for lessons. However, down the road the organization is hoping to house its own 10 horses.

The benefits of riding

Berg, who is from East Farmington, said she decided to start River Valley Riders because she has seen firsthand the benefits horse riding has on children with special needs.

She is a special education and adapted physical education teacher for Northast Metro 916 Intermediate School District.

"I've seen that my students accomplish much more when they're on a horse," she said. "In a way it's just recreational, but there's so much more with the movement of the horse - they're getting a lot of movement therapy without really knowing it."

Berg said riders come to them with such disabilities as: autism, cognitive and speech delay, Down Syndrome, low muscle tone, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury.

River Valley Riders currently has 54 students who meet once a week, on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, at one of the River Valley Riders sites.

During the classes, the riders learn the basics of horseback riding.

"Overall they're technically learning to ride a horse," Berg said.

In terms of physical benefits, Berg said the horses' movements are transferred from the animal to the rider and help to strengthen spine and pelvic muscles, which improves posture and balance. Additional exercises during lessons help to improve coordination and increase flexibility.

"Movement therapy also helps with speech and language," Berg said.

Berg said riding horses also has cognitive benefits for its riders through education activities that help to improve coordination, communication, as well as reading and math skills.

In terms of emotional benefits, the program helps its riders develop self-confidence, patience and other social skills by accomplishing challenges as independently as possible.

Additionally, Berg said River Valley Riders works on sensory integration with the riders by having them touch different items that they might find bothersome and by referencing the smells, sights and sounds around them.

"These kids get so much out of riding a horse," Berg said. "They make huge gains."

Creating a home

Berg said it's going to take some time before River Valley Rider will fulfill its entire vision - the indoor riding arena, the stables and the trails - because the property is currently under a contract for deed.

"It needs to be paid off before we can build," she said.

This spring and fall River Valley Riders will kick off a capital campaign to help raise money for the needed improvements to the property.

In the meantime, the program will continue to offer a unique experience to its riders, Berg said.

"Riding a horse helps the children's self-esteem," she said. "Riding helps them realize that they can do something that everybody else is doing - you almost wouldn't know that they have any special needs."

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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