A special program for special needs

Published 4:47 pm Thursday, March 24, 2016

A group of special-education students from Suffolk has been learning a bit about horses recently, and the lessons have taught them some important life lessons that have little to do with the creatures they ride and groom once a week.

Every year, Equi-Kids, a therapeutic riding program in Virginia Beach, uses grants and donations to fund the six-week horseback riding class for six special-needs classes in Hampton Roads’ public school divisions, Mary Campana, executive director of the nonprofit organization, said this week.

The program has a waiting list of elementary and middle schools wanting to participate. All participants must be under a doctor’s care for their respective disabilities.

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One of this year’s grants went to the class of John Yeates special education teacher Claudette Pierre. Pierre added her class to the waiting list for the program long ago, after learning about the private riding lessons that had been part of a former student’s therapy plan.

As it turns out, horses have a lot to teach youngsters about social skills, working together, following rules and taking care of one another. The program also gives the students an opportunity for hands-on experiences that can help improve their confidence and exposure to the world.

Teachers say improved retention and focus is the biggest takeaway experience for students, said Kathy Chitwood, program director. “It’s a new experience for them and helps build their self-esteem,” she told staff writer Allison Williams this week.

Founded in 1989, Equi-Kids Therapeutic Riding Program has grown to become one of the largest accredited equine riding programs in the country benefiting the special needs community. The organization also provides therapeutic riding opportunities for veterans on its 92-acre site on Sandbridge Road.

Special-needs students need special attention and teachers who think creatively about how to keep them engaged and how to prepare them for the world outside of school. The kids at John Yeates Middle School are fortunate to have a teacher like Pierre, who takes their needs so seriously. And Hampton Roads is fortunate to have a program like Equi-Kids that presents such a good opportunity for students and veterans in need.