A slender young man in a white cowboy hat steps off the mounting platform in the WindWalkers barn and eases into the saddle. Once he’s securely seated aboard Cody, a sorrel quarter horse with a white forehead blaze, a man and a woman grasp the reins and walk forward to make sure that Cody and “Cowboy Joe”, his developmentally-challenged rider, are making strides in the right direction.
The two directing Cody are volunteers: In the lead is Elaina, a student at Colorado Mountain College who is working toward a veterinary technology degree. Evan, Cody’s “sidewalker”, comes from Jaywalker Lodge, where he’s enrolled in the Solutions program and making strides of his own: living the “12 steps” to rebuild his life and transition to sober and independent living.
Evan is one of nearly a dozen “Jaywalkers” who volunteered last spring and summer to help with the equine therapy programs offered by the nonprofit WindWalkers. Located in Missouri Heights above Carbondale, WindWalkers Equine Assisted Learning and Therapy Center serves more than 50 clients each week and is home to 11 therapy horses. Its staff includes riding instructors, a psychotherapist, a physical therapist, a program director, a herd manager and a volunteer coordinator who stretches WindWalker’s $470,000 annual budget by keeping as many as 50 volunteers productively occupied.
Last summer, nearly a dozen of those volunteers came from Jaywalker Lodge, a Carbondale treatment facility that helps men recover from drug and alcohol addiction. Each week, three to five men from Solutions, a 90-day transitional program that comes after the recovering Jaywalkers graduate from the 90-day Lodge program, come to lend a helping hand during riding lessons. Those weekly lessons, given to four or five disabled adults from another local nonprofit, Mountain Valley Developmental Services, have been a staple at WindWalkers for years.
The connection with Jaywalker Lodge, however, began just last summer. Jim Soda, program director for Jaywalker Lodge said, “The sessions varied from week to week. However, the men from Jaywalker started to develop bonds with the riders, and that appeared to be reciprocated. The impact on everyone was visible from the continuous smiles and laughter that occurred each week. The men always came back refreshed and upbeat, even if they were just moving hay.”
“But I didn’t want them just lifting bales of hay!” chuckles Gabrielle Greeves, executive director for WindWalkers. “I didn’t want them just mucking out stalls or being sidewalkers either.” Greeves thought that riding could help the Jaywalkers get a leg up on their recovery.
Accustomed as she is to the spell the horses weave with children—kids who are suffering from challenges ranging from spinal bifida and MS to autism or even trauma in the brain—Greeves was nonetheless intrigued with how the Jaywalkers—men who have ridden over some pretty rough personal terrain—reacted to the horses. “Many of them had never been exposed to horses before,” she says. “They would say things like ‘I had a stuffed horse or hobby horse once…’ and you could see how they were longing to just touch the horses and make contact. I would see a widening of the eyes and sometimes a childlike awe and knew they were wondering, ‘How do I touch a horse?’” WindWalkers taught them.
While two-legged WindWalkers were teaching the Jaywalkers what they needed to know about feeding, saddling and caring for horses, WindWalkers’ four-legged staffers were giving nonverbal lessons. Research has shown that horses pick up on human emotions, so while grooming a horse, a person not only learns about self-grooming, he also learns to become aware of (and to mellow out) his emotional state. As Greeves says, “Horses teach lessons that range from respect to bedside manner to an understanding of personal space.” That’s a key lesson for Jaywalkers because one characteristic shared by alcoholics and addicts is the failure to respect others’ boundaries. Thus those in recovery need to learn to recognize cues about others’ physical, emotional and social boundaries—and horses have ways of making them clear.
Eventually, Greeves got the Jaywalkers into the saddle. “They were smiling from ear to ear,” she says.
“There was joy in their faces and the experience showed the power of the horses as therapy, along with the power of two different organizations with the mission to help others working together,” says Jaywalker’s Jim Soda. As explained on the Jaywalker Lodge website, volunteer service is a key part of recovery because “addiction is a disease of isolation” and service counteracts that, providing “a vital connection to others and the reassurance that life has meaning and purpose.”
Nikki Soda, Jaywalker’s director of business development and alumni relations, says that volunteering at WindWalkers is “hands-down one of our guys’ favorite service projects. It’s really inspiring; they can come and assist with disabled adults. That’s not something they would have done before they began the program. It takes our Jaywalker guys out of themselves.”
Jaywalker volunteer Jake Toupal agrees, saying, “WindWalkers was a great opportunity to step outside of myself and spend quality time with some great people. I love the atmosphere of warmth and kindness that the staff and clients alike bring to the program.”
Stephen Valenta, another Jaywalker volunteer, said, “My opportunities to volunteer with WindWalkers were truly remarkable! Such an amazing staff, one that delivers an even more amazing therapeutic activity to those who take part in this wonderful experience.”
Given the immense strides the riders, horses and volunteers have made together, Jaywalkers is starting an alumni group who will begin volunteering at WindWalkers during the winter, when WindWalkers needs extra hands and donations. “People tend to think we just run programs when the weather is warm,” says Greeves. “But it’s year-around, so we need volunteers and donations year-round. The horses have to eat all year long.”
“WindWalkers provides an excellent service opportunity for our young men,” says Nikki Soda. “It’s so meaningful that it stays with them, and many keep coming back as alumni. They make such connections and they know they are making a difference. So for us, it’s a win /win.”
Considering how many lives are touched—the clients from Mountain Valley Developmental Services, the clean-and-sober volunteers from Jaywalker Lodge, the staff and the horses from WindWalkers—there may not be enough “wins” in that statement. With all the folks and critters making strides together, it might just be a win to the fourth power.