Chestnut Hill resident Elaine Ballengee, a volunteer at Special Equestrians, leads Molly, a Dutch Warmblood therapy horse while Will Lounsbury, a student at Lakeside School, learns to ride. by Sue …
by Sue Ann Rybak
Chestnut Hill resident Elaine Ballengee, 67, gently brushes Splash, a 15-year-old Tennessee Walker/ Morgan therapy horse at Special Equestrians, 2800 Street Rd. in Warrington, lower Bucks County. The retired school teacher has always had a passion for horses. As a child growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she loved riding.
So when she heard that Special Equestrians was looking for volunteers, she didn’t hesitate to sign-up. Special Equestrians is a nonprofit whose mission is to improve the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals with a variety of disabilities through therapeutic riding and equine-assisted learning.
For over three years, Ballengee has devoted countless volunteer hours to the organization’s therapeutic riding and equine assisted-learning program. When she is not volunteering at Special Equestrians, which was founded by Kathy Quinn in Doylestown in 1982, Ballengee is tutoring and mentoring students at St. James School, an Episcopal middle school in Allegheny West section of North Philadelphia that provides students with a tuition-free private education.
Karen Basmagy, a co-facilitator of Special Equestrians’ equine-facilitated learning (EFL) program called GaitWays for School Success, said Ballengee is an extremely dedicated volunteer who helped establish the equine-assisted learning program at the inner-city school. “She saw the connection between the kids at St. James and the power of equine-assisted activities,” she said.
She explained that Ballengee organized the program at St. James, which is funded through donations. Many of the students from St. James and other inner city students live below the poverty level in dysfunctional environments and suffer from chronic stress. “They live in a constant state of crisis,” said Basmagy, who added that many of these kids have witnessed violence or have been victims of violence themselves.
“All the students who are in the program are chosen because they have some major behavior or self-esteem issues,” Basmagy said. “Many of the kids have a history of being disruptive in class, fighting with other students and talking back to teachers. When we get them in the barn, though, we see very little of that. Just coming into this new environment, where they are surrounded by nature and encouraged to interact with the horses, is almost like a reset button. It gives them a different mind-set.”
Special Equestrians pairs every child with a specific horse based on their individual personalities. Students attend the program one day a week for five weeks. “We want the kids to develop a relationship with their horse during their time at the barn,” said Basmagy. “Horses are very relationship-oriented. They make perfect partners to help people get better at learning how to communicate effectively and accepting feedback.
“When the horse gives feedback, there is no ulterior motive. It’s very honest and non-judgmental. There’s no incongruence to it. It’s just pure. You can either accept it and make a change or keep banging your head against the wall. If you call somebody out on it, they can feel very defensive about it, but if it’s coming from a horse, you really can’t dispute it.
“We try to use the kids’ experiences in the barn with the horse and with each other to make a connection between their relationship with the horse and their human world. Most of these kids have never seen a horse up close, and being out in this very natural environment learning how to interact with the horses has a powerful impact. Elaine is really dedicated to making children’s worlds better, especially for kids who don’t have the opportunities that other kids may have.”
Chester County resident Mary Hopkins, 56, who volunteers at St. James and accompanies the students to Special Equestrians, agreed. “Elaine is incredibly patient with the students,” Hopkins said. “She used to be a teacher, so she is used to being around kids, but you never know who is going to have a bad day. There are times when I just have to turn and walk away and say, ‘I am so glad you are here, because I can’t deal with this right now.’ But Elaine is able to help them work through it.”
She recalled how one fifth grader became frustrated and started acting out. “I will often say to him, ‘Put your hands on your desk and imagine that you are getting ready to ride your horse,’ and he can come back to that thought and calm down. He smiles because he remembers. It just takes him away from that thought…
“Elaine feels deeply for these kids, and they recognize sincerity. It’s just incredible to be part of it. Everybody smiles when anybody accomplishes anything. There are high-fives all over. A lot of our kids (St. James’ students) aren’t used to that. To watch them all share the same fears and then conquer them together is a unique experience.”
To watch a video about Special Equestrians and their Equine-Assisted Learning Program at St. James School, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABt7qZ-I4DQ. For more information about Special Equestrians or to become a volunteer go to www.specialequestrians.org or call 215-918-1001.