Eleven-year-old Kathryn Olson has a rare genetic disorder that limits much of her cognitive and neuromuscular functioning, and has rendered her almost totally non-verbal, leaving her to rely on an electronic device to communicate with other people.
Teaching her to use the device effectively had been a struggle for years, but there has always been one activity that provides a powerful boost of motivation.
Earlier this month, at Wölffer Estate Stables in Sagaponack, she sat astride a horse named Rocket, scrolling through her device as trainers and volunteers from the Center for Therapeutic Riding of the East End — commonly known at CTREE — stood beside her, waiting to see what she wanted to say.
Karen Bocksel, the managing director and founder of the therapeutic riding center, which is housed at the picturesque, 100-plus-acre facility, figured Kathryn would tap the icon for “ring work” or “trail ride,” her usual requests. Before long, she found what she was looking for, and the device spoke: “Walk on,” it said, and Rocket responded, moving ahead, just as Kathryn wanted.
It was a simple enough moment on the surface. But for children like Kathryn, who are unable to do many of the things other children and adults take for granted, that moment was huge.
“It was immediate and instant gratification,” said her mother, Colleen Olson, while speaking last week about what the CTREE program, celebrating its 10th anniversary, has done for her daughter.
Kathryn started riding when she was just 3 years old, and her younger brother Jack, now 8, and who also has the same disorder as his sister, has been riding with CTREE since he was just 2. The Olson family is not a stranger to multiple therapies and other interventions to help their children, but Ms. Olson said that there has always been something special about riding.
“From a life happiness perspective, both of them just have so much confidence and poise and grace when they ride,” she said. “When they struggle with so many other things, it’s really powerful.”
Ms. Bocksel and the team of trainers and volunteers she works with at CTREE have been providing those kinds of outcomes for a decade now, for riders both young and old, and with a wide array of disabilities and needs, from teens with Asperger syndrome, to those who have cerebral palsy or other conditions, and even veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, older adults afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, or people undergoing cancer treatment.
Ms. Bocksel took time out from her busy summer schedule earlier last week to reflect on CTREE’s 10 years of service, and how the nonprofit has grown from humble beginnings to a program that is highly sought after and has touched the lives of many families.
The organization will have its top yearly fundraiser on Thursday, August 22, “Horses Changing Lives: CTREE at Sebonack.” The 1970s-themed cocktail party will include live and silent auctions and a DJ, taking place at Sebonack Golf Club in Shinnecock Hills from 6 to 9 p.m.
CTREE’s modest barn is tucked away in a cozy corner of the expansive Wölffer Estate Stables, one of the most well-respected show barns on the East End. In addition to the seemingly endless sprawl of grass paddocks and barns, there is a courtyard with a gurgling fountain in the middle, and long and winding trails through the vast grassy paddocks and riding rings. It is like being transported to Europe, and feels much farther away from the hustle and bustle that exists in the area in the busy month of August than it really is.
Ms. Bocksel has a happy problem on her hands these days: She feels like the organization can do much more and serve more people, but it is limited by time and space constraints. She admits this even as she expresses her gratitude for having a home at Wölffer for the entirety of the organization’s existence, saying that the idyllic atmosphere there alone provides a therapeutic effect, not only for the riders but for their families as well.
A lot has happened in 10 years. When Ms. Bocksel first started out, she had a clear idea of what she wanted to do, and the expertise to do it. She has decades of experience in the therapeutic riding field, and is currently president of the New York State Therapeutic Riding Association, as well as a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International Certified Advanced Instructor.
As the mother of a son, Brad, with special needs, Ms. Bocksel became involved with his school in New Jersey, where they lived at the time, as part of its special education parent teacher organization. When her son was in school full time, she began volunteering with another equine therapy program in the area. The extreme dedication of the volunteers, and the outsize benefits that horses provided for the riders, was a powerful combination for Ms. Bocksel, and before long, it became her life’s work.
“It became a passion when I discovered that this horse, that at times petrified me due to his sheer strength and the fact that he did not have to listen to me, would in fact, listen to me, listen to a 6-year-old who wanted to trot, listen to a rider who could not use their legs to communicate with the horse, listen without judging a troubled teenager’s hard day at school,” she said.
“Add on observing the physical benefits of a rider with CP learning how to sit upright with a horse walking under him, enabling him to literally take off when his legs weren’t able to support him. Giving an athlete who suddenly became a paraplegic a new sport. Giving a child who was unable to play a sport in school a sport and a teammate and competitions and trophies. I could go on.”
Turning it into a reality was an uphill climb, she admitted, and even the people who were on board with her from the start weren’t so sure it would happen. Cynthia McKelvey, who sits on CTREE’s board of directors, was one of those people.
“She had this giant vision. And for me, I was looking at her, like, ‘We have only two horses and two riders and no money!’ But she was, like, ‘Don’t worry — it will come,’” she said, speaking of the program’s first year in 2009.
“I thought it would take a miracle to get there. And then when I look at us today, I think about how we have gotten there, and then some. To now be able to have all our horses and riders, and the ongoing growth and support from families and volunteers and professionals and other funders, it’s just really incredible.”
CTREE now has four horses in its program: Moseley, a former cart horse, with a distinct blond color, a thick flaxen mane characteristic of his Haflinger breed, hoofs the diameter of dinner plates, and a wide, sturdy body, making him the equine version of a comfy sofa; Pumpkin, a plump and kind rescue pony; Kirolak, a brown-and-white paint horse with kind eyes; and Rocket, a quarter horse who used to show in the Hampton Classic.
Lessons occur during off hours for other riders at Wölffer — which is a busy show barn, especially in the summer months — taking place on Mondays and also in the later evenings. CTREE also offers lessons on some Saturday mornings, in their own dedicated paddock.
One of the initial hurdles Ms. Bocksel faced when the organization was created was convincing people that it was a worthwhile activity for their children.
“It was a bit of a slow go, selling riding to people with special needs out here,” Ms. Bocksel said. “Local people viewed it as an elitist activity. They didn’t understand what it could do, and only associated it with insane amounts of money.”
So Ms. Bocksel worked to get the word out in the community, putting fliers in local therapist offices, and speaking at libraries and at schools.
The benefits of horseback riding for children and adults with various developmental disabilities are many, and varied. Ms. Bocksel has watched non-verbal or verbally limited children gain speech and language and start to talk. She has watched others with neuromuscular limitations gain core strength and improved balance. She has watched kids who struggle socially come out of their shells and make friends.
Ms. Bocksel shares the stories with a kind of passion and deep feeling that makes it clear that none of this has gotten old for her. She mentions the many letters and testimonials she’s received from parents, and how they leave her in tears.
She is breathlessly thrilled sharing a story about a boy who lacked the strength to last more than five minutes upright in the saddle one week — and by his fourth ride was aboard for 25 minutes. And she is fiercely proud of the students who ultimately leave the program, because they do not need its services anymore.
The work put in by Ms. Bocksel and her staff, which includes three part-time paid employees and several volunteers, has paid off, according to those who have been associated with the program.
“I felt like miracles were happening in the barn all the time,” Ms. McKelvey said, adding, like other parents, that the positive feedback she got from other therapists confirmed that the riding was indeed reaping benefits for their children.
“It is such a heartwarming, life-changing program,” she said. “I feel like people who support the idea of what we’re doing really need to come to an open house and watch a lesson because seeing it in action is really something. It’s hard to explain in words.”
For Ms. Olson, the fact that horseback riding is a therapy that doesn’t “feel like work,” is a benefit that can’t be overstated. She also applauds the organization for making what is traditionally a cost-prohibitive sport accessible for anyone who has a child with special needs.
“It’s the least expensive therapy we do,” she said. “And the most impactful and effective.”
Private donations have been largely responsible for making that possible, and Thursday’s fundraiser at Sebonack is a big part of that effort as well. Ms. Bocksel’s long-term dream is to have a farm of her own, to expand what CTREE does and offer more lessons and services to more people. For now, she remains immensely proud of the program and what it has done for the people it serves, and also heaps praise upon her staff and volunteers. But mostly, she is focused on what the riders have accomplished.
“I’m most proud of our riders that have come and then, sadly, left us because they don’t need us anymore,” she said. “It’s fun to hear about where they are and what they’re up to.
“There are many small miracles that take a long time to achieve,” she added. “But they’re incredible when we achieve them.”