Therapeutic Riding Inc.-- Local attorney aids young equestrians with disabilities

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Editor's Note: Dan Bahls is an Ann Arbor resident and member of the WCBA.

In addition, local attorney Doug Lewis served for several years on TRI's Board of Directors and also as president for two years.

By Carolyn Dekker

Legal News Special Writer

Every Saturday morning, Daniel Bahls reaches past his dress shoes and grabs a sturdy pair of hiking boots.

In his professional life, he is an attorney for Legal Aid of Western Ohio in Toledo, but today, he's a volunteer sidewalker for Therapeutic Riding, Inc (TRI).

TRI was founded in 1984 and currently offers classes from a rented facility in northeast Ann Arbor. Each week, approximately 80 riders with a variety of disabilities get to trade their walkers and wheelchairs and their own two feet for a place in the saddle.

Some students ride independently, trotting, cantering and even jumping. Others get a helping hand from a horse leader, or from sidewalkers like Bahls who walk beside them, providing reminders or a steadying hand.

Riders as young as three and as old as their sixties benefit from the motion and experience of riding the gentle horses who work at TRI.

Since insurance does not cover therapeutic riding, rider fees are kept very low, less than 18 percent of the actual cost.

The rest of the costs are provided by donations from the community. Any rider who needs financial assistance receives it, thanks to the Sam and Juliana Zirinsky Memorial Scholarship Fund. This restricted fund is used only for rider scholarships and ensures that no one is turned away due to financial hardship.

The financial side is one half of what makes TRI run. The other half is a team of more than 100 hardworking volunteers.

"Without volunteers like Daniel, we simply would not exist. It's because of them that our riders get to experience the joy of horseback riding," explains Volunteer Coordinator Tracy Boyle.

"Dan is a wonderful sidewalker. He never takes his eyes off his riders so we know they are completely safe in his care."

How does an attorney with little to no horse experience find himself involved in this sort of work?

Bahls says, "My wife grew up volunteering at a center in New Jersey. She got me started on it when we moved to Michigan in 2007."

The defining moment for him came about 10 weeks into his time at TRI. The father of one of his riders, a six-year-old also in his first session, arrived at the barn and announced that his son had taken his first steps.

"After that, I was hooked," said Bahls. "His family felt that just those few weeks of therapeutic riding helped him make this giant leap forward in his abilities. That's enough to get me out of bed on a Saturday morning."

The benefits of therapeutic riding are not so immediate or visible for every rider, but Bahls expresses his faith that they are there.

"All of my riders are fun to work with. It's exciting to see them accomplish what no one would think them capable of, whether it's turning a horse or, in other cases, something as simple as balancing themselves."

"It raises the question of what else they're capable of doing if you can figure out how to ask for it in the right way."

While Bahls initially worked with a variety of riders, TRI's director, Jan Vescelius, has come to rely on him to work regularly with several riders for whom his particular gifts seem to be an excellent match.

"Daniel has great instincts for how to communicate in a clear, concise way, and he gives wonderful, intelligent feedback about what is or is not working in a lesson," she says.

Bahls is also quick to point out that there are those riders for whom everything seems to come naturally. "Some students I've worked with know how to ride horses better than I do, which, admittedly, is not a very high bar," he says.

"Riding is not an easy sport to begin with," says Vescelius. "You need to be relentlessly persistent and consistent."

TRI offers classes for most of the year but cannot go year-round because it does not have a heated indoor arena. "Cold weather can exacerbate the physical challenges of some of our riders," says Vescelius.

As the cold weather abates, a reduced number of students are able to ride in March. This session is, however, difficult to staff because many volunteers feel less able to keep their riders safe while working with numb hands and cold feet.

The space limitations at the present facility also mean that TRI cannot accommodate all of the riders who want to participate.

"We have almost as many riders wanting to join the program as are currently riding,"says Vescelius, "and we always worry about riders taking a step backwards when they are unable to ride for two or three months during the winter."

In order to address these needs, TRI recently purchased land that the Lloyd and Mabel Johnson Foundation gifted to the Legacy Land Conservancy.

TRI and The Legacy Land Conservancy worked together to develop a conservation easement for the property that will allow it to be protected in perpetuity as rural heritage land while meeting TRI's present and future needs.

Now the task is to raise the $2,000,000 in funds needed to build the barn and arena. Harold and Kay Peplau gave the campaign a huge lift with a pledge of $1,000,000, and TRI's generous supporters donated $500,000 more by the end of 2009.

In February, however, TRI was still $500,000 short of its total fundraising goal. At this point, the Johnson Foundation stepped up with a matching grant of $250,000, bringing the dream of a new facility within reach.

In the meantime, Bahls and the other volunteers pull on their boots (and hats and gloves) and head off to the barn.

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer at TRI, please contact Tracy Boyle, Volunteer Coordinator, at 734-741-9402 or by email at therapeuticriding@earthlink.net.

If you would like to support TRI with a capital campaign gift that will be matched by the Johnson Foundation, contact Jan Vescelius at 734-741-9402 or info@therapeuticridinginc.org.

Published: Thu, Apr 1, 2010

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