Trevecca Nazarene University

Freshman saddles up to help kids with special needs

(This article was published in the January 2014 issue of TrevEchoes - written by Nadia Smith.)

Lauren Hart stretched out her arms, pretending to be an airplane as she walked beside her horse, making the young boy who was in the saddle smile.

Hart, a Trevecca freshman, has been volunteering every Saturday helping local kids with disabilities ride therapeutic horses in Franklin.

For the past four months, Hart, an elementary education major, has served as a sidewalker at Saddle Up, a nonprofit, therapeutic horse riding organization that serves children with disabilities.

Hart goes in for her lessons at 2 p.m. and usually gets done at 5 p.m.

When it comes to working with special needs children, Hart does not mind giving up some of her Saturday.

“I have a lot of time and taking two lessons every Saturday that only last an hour each isn’t a lot out of the day,” Hart said.

Over the summer, Hart decided she wanted to volunteer at some place that helped children. She had to decide between working for either Deer Run or Saddle Up. After spending some time in prayer, she made the decision to give Saddle Up a try. Before her first lesson she gave God an ultimatum. She wanted there to be a need for her Spanish speaking abilities.

“I told God that I wanted to speak Spanish my first lesson. If I didn’t speak Spanish that first lesson, if it didn’t go well, I wouldn’t work there,” Hart said.

She spoke Spanish five minutes into her first lesson. It was obvious that God wanted her to work there, she said.

As a sidewalker, Hart’s job is to walk beside the horse during a lesson to ensure the safety of the rider. Students who ride the horses have disabilities that include autism, down syndrome and cerebral palsy.

“As a sidewalker you have to know what’s OK, what’s not OK and what’s going on,” Hart said.

For Hart, when a lesson goes successfully it is rewarding.

“Having a successful lesson is like a high for me. I love being able to pour into the rider and his or her family,” Hart said.

But not all lessons are what Hart would call “successful.” She sometimes has to be firm with students in her role as the person responsible for their safety inside the arena.

She recalls one lesson with Eric, a 10-year-old boy, which required her to take away his music privilege because he was not following directions.

“He wouldn’t steer his horse at all. He ended up not listening whatsoever,” Hart said.

Hart turned off the music and told Eric that if he wanted it back then he would have to steer his horse.

He would not do it.

“Eric was crying. He wanted his music so badly, but he would not steer his horse,” Hart said.

It took 20 minutes before Eric decided to cooperate and got his music back.

She was not angry with Eric; she was frustrated because she knows that Eric knew how to do it.

It is not always tough working with Eric though. His last lesson went smoothly.

There are exercises that the children do during their lessons to loosen their bodies up. Eric did a good job with all of his stretches.

“He did very, very well, and I am so glad he did it that well,” Hart said.

Learning these skills has made Hart a valuable volunteer.

“She’s been a big help. She’s here very regularly. It’s only been a couple of months but she’s a huge help,” Kim Kiline, the volunteer services director at Saddle Up, said.

Eric’s father also said that he likes Hart.

“I like her. They don’t want parents in the arena as a general rule, so it’s hard to know what goes on, but the reports seem fine. She seems just fine,” he said.

In the future, Hart said that she hopes to become a sub for lessons instead of being regularly assigned to the same children.

“I like subbing more because it varies. It’s not the same thing over and over again. It keeps it interesting,” Hart said.

The main reason Hart chose to work at Saddle Up is because she hopes to work with special needs children as a future job.

“I want to become a teacher. I want to one day be able to teach both children with special needs and children without,” Hart said. “I’ve grown up working with special needs children in different aspects of my life. It’s rewarding.” 

For information on how to volunteer at Saddle Up, visit their website.