In the summer of 2000, Karen Sanchez took on a job that few people can say they’ve done: judging in the summer Olympics. Because she was already an accomplished horsewoman with experience in eventing—an equestrian triathlon consisting of dressage, cross-country and show jumping—Sanchez saw a huge opportunity when the Olympics needed volunteers for the Sidney games. “We applied, my mom and I both did, and the Olympics wanted some people from each country to help out,” she recalled, “and we got chosen to be national technical officials.” Sanchez spent two weeks in Sidney, keeping horses in control and watching the U.S. dressage team take lessons from Germany’s renowned dressage coach. For Sanchez, being chosen to judge “was quite an honor” and “a wonderful experience.”

However, Karen Sanchez’s biggest accomplishment doesn’t reside in Sidney, Australia, but on 40 acres of picturesque farm land in Centerburg, Ohio. This is where she, along with her husband, founded the Shane Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship in 1993. As “the oldest therapeutic riding program in Central Ohio,” The Shane Center has left an indelible legacy, helping to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

The day I stopped by the Shane Center, it was a Tuesday morning, around 9:15 a.m. The humidity of previous days had subsided, with the temperature, for the first time in a while, having dipped below 80 degrees. The day’s camp session had just begun for the nine students enrolled. The students were split in groups of three, switching stations every 45 minutes. The three students in the outdoor arena appeared to be the lowest class of rider: One girl was helped by a woman in front of the horse, a man keeping her upright, and a young woman to her left. There was enthusiasm every time a student was able to steer the horse around cones, forming a figure-eight, or when the horse picked up speed. When I spoke with Karen Sanchez in her office, she related to what her students were feeling.

Sanchez began riding and training horses at the age of nine and started teaching students to ride at 14. She received a degree in education at Otterbein University in Westerville, but because “teaching jobs were few and far between in the Columbus area,” she took a position at the Otterbein Equine Science Facility. It was there that Sanchez was exposed to hippotherapy, a therapeutic treatment—whether it be occupational, physical, or speech and language—that applies horseback riding. The more Sanchez learned about hippotherapy, she decided to focus all her efforts on it.

But although she received her instructor certification and had hopes of starting a hippotherapy program at Otterbein, there were things keeping her dreams from taking off. “[We] were at the old facility at the time, and I was doing [lessons during] after hours, on Sundays, leftover times,” Sanchez told me. “I was finding that there really wasn’t room…for it.”

Sanchez formed a pilot program for hippotherapy in 1991 while still working at Otterbein. By 1993, the program “had grown to enough riders and enough interest” that Sanchez and her husband purchased Willow Farm, a 40-acre area in Centerburg, 50 minutes northeast of Columbus, and formed Equine Assisted Therapy. The program was renamed in 2014 to the Shane Center for Therapeutic Riding after Sanchez’s childhood horse, who, she remembered, “was one of three horses that we started the program with.”

The Shane Center formed at a time when there weren’t many opportunities for people with disabilities; if opportunities were present, they were quite limited. But with efforts to integrate disabled students into regular classrooms, additional services were needed. It was also during this period that people were becoming increasingly open to non-traditional therapies (i.e., not medically based) and treatments. “We do therapy in riding,” Sanchez informed me, “but technically I’m not a therapist. I don’t tell people I’m doing therapy.”

Yet despite not being a conventional therapeutic treatment, the therapeutic riding gives the students at the Shane Center tremendous benefits. If a child in a wheelchair is put on a horse, for instance, and the horse walks while the child sits, the horse will move the child’s pelvis as if the child was walking. “The horse is stimulating all those muscles that aren’t being used,” said Sanchez.

Along with gaining balance and proprioception—the unconscious ability to sense one’s own position and motion—students gain the confidence and social skills that they might not otherwise. According to Sanchez, “the therapy horses love to be loved on, so for some students, they need that.”

What makes horses perfect for guiding disabled students is their mastering of interface. In other words, a horse is fine whether a student squeezes it like a teddy bear, or if a student is scared to touch it. The horse will accommodate to the rider’s personality.

Sanchez has recognized how her students positively respond to interacting with their horses: “[The] students tend to bond quite a bit; it helps them open up to their staff, or even at home.”

When I asked Sanchez about the biggest success story that she’s witnessed during the Shane Center’s history—the student that overcame the most obstacles—she brought up the story of two brothers born to very serious challenges.

The oldest sibling, Kevin, was “very medically challenged”: he was born addicted to crack and had cerebral palsy, among other issues. When Kevin began riding at the Shane Center, he had a feeding tube and sat backward on the horse. But over the course of a few sessions, Kevin was able to strengthen his swallowing muscles, and thus receive proper nutrition.

Sanchez was reminded of Kevin’s foster mom crediting this change to the horseback riding: “[She] brought him out her and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing with him in therapy, but he’s eating enough to take [the feeding tube out].”

It was while Kevin was riding that his younger brother Mark, three years old at the time, would run along the grass watching Kevin’s progress. While also being addicted to crack upon birth, Mark had a cleft palate and was non-verbal; his parents were unsure about his speech.

That miraculously changed when during his first session, while perched upon a pony, Mark was able to command the pony when attempting to make a sound. Sanchez’s goal for Mark that day was to have him “vocalize a simple sound like ‘ahh’…and from there it turned into ‘hi’ and ‘bye.’”

Mark’s mother began to cry, and told Sanchez that she had taken Mark to speech therapy for nine months. That morning—right before they brought Mark for his first session—the therapist didn’t believe Mark was capable of producing speech.

When you visit the Shane Center’s website, you will find its mission statement. The organization’s focus is on “improving the quality of life for people with disabilities through innovative equestrian activities.” I asked Karen Sanchez if she believed the center has stuck to this mission throughout its history. And while she said that the general mission— “serving students and trying to improve the quality of their lives”—has always been followed, the official mission statement has been tweaked. Scroll down the front page of the Shane Center website and you will see that the word “disabilities” with a strike through dis-. To Sanchez, her students aren’t being held back. Instead, these students all have unique abilities that are waiting to be uncovered. – Jared McNutt

Jared McNutt is a student at The Ohio State University, majoring in English with a minor in Professional Writing. His two dogs–Bridget, 13, and Bailey, 7–are both schnockers, a miniature schnauzer and cocker spaniel mix.

Photo courtesy of The Shane Center