GERING, Neb. – At Buckboard Therapeutic Riding Academy, in a large indoor arena, a group of volunteers are leading a rider perched high up on brown horse.
The rider is a young girl, and she brought her own pink riding helmet. Throughout the session, she raises her arms, moves them in windmills and performs other exercises on horseback. As she works her way through the protocol, she seemingly comes alive. Any apprehension she felt when she climbed onto the steed, which is several times her size, melts as the volunteers guide her throughout the arena.
When the session is over, the young girl dismounts with a smile, and her mom eagerly books the next session.
The volunteers go to work unsaddling the old mare, lead her to water and get her a bite before the next rider shows up. One of those volunteers, a young man in jeans and a blue t-shirt, finishes working with the mare and turns his attention to a miniature horse – which, true to the reputation of miniatures everywhere, is much ornerier and making a show of throwing itself onto the ground.
The young man, Brady Cox, works with the miniature, leads it to water, brushes it, and generally performs the tasks any decent horseman would. He has patience for the horse’s attitude, and it soon calms down. He does his work with determination, know-how, and – perhaps the easiest attribute to see – pride.
Today, he moves easily about the arena. He couldn’t always.
He’s the non-profit’s best salesman for fundraisers, one of its most dedicated volunteers and one of its success stories. Cox rode at Buckboard for seven years, and without the horses, his life would be very different.
“That’s how I got walking, with the horses,” Cox, who suffers from a disability which hampered his mobility, said.
He’s helped out at Buckboard ever since he got on his own two feet.
“It’s pretty special,” he said.
Cox is right – it’s easy to see why the girl’s mom was so eager to get her daughter back in the arena.
From Humble Beginnings
Buckboard didn’t start out in the indoor, climate-controlled arena it’s in now. It started at Kathy Gatch’s ranch outside of Minatare, with minimal funding, big dreams and a cause that hit home for the former adaptive physical education teacher.
Gatch’s son was in a coma after a terrible car accident. The nearest place that could fit his extensive therapy needs was in Craig, Colo., – but Kathy took over.
“Our son had a really bad car wreck,” Gatch said. “He was in a coma for a long time. I have a degree in adaptive physical education and I got to do most of this therapy for him.”
Her son was Buckboard’s first rider, and one of its first success stories. It also helped Kathy see the good she could do for children in her community.
“It took several years planning and getting the money together,” she said. “It is an expensive program to start. We had milk cows, and we had them for over 30 years. My husband decided to sell them and get out of the business. I moved horses in. We started in August of that year. We had three volunteers and five riders.”
Buckboard opened in 1998. Gatch bought old ranch horses, which she said gave the animals a purpose.
“I wanted to give old horses a job,” she said. “A lot of times when they can’t work on the ranch anymore, they’re just put out to pasture. I wanted to give them a job. This is perfect for them. It’s not hard and it doesn’t tax them much.”
Early on, Buckboard had 14 horses, though that number has dwindled as time took its toll. Currently, the program owns a few miniatures. Full-sized horses are lent to Buckboard from people in the community.
The indoor arena opened in November 2017, brought to reality by dozens of donors in the community and several grants. It enables Gatch to help riders indoors all year long, whereas outdoor sessions are impossible in the winter. Buckboard even had to cancel sessions due to wind.
The land for the arena, which is located on the southern outskirts of Gering, Neb., was donated by the descendants of the people who originally homesteaded there. Gatch worked through the red tape to obtain the proper zoning variances, and the arena became the home of Buckboard.
“The whole time I wanted an indoor arena so we could ride in inclement weather,” she said. “We even had to cancel one day because the dirt was blowing so strong. It hurt people’s eyes. It would hurt the horse’s eyes. With this building, even if it’s chilly outside we can come inside and they can ride anyway. If it’s raining we can ride.”
Anyone with a background working with animals can attest to the fact there’s something therapeutic about it, whether it’s bottle-feeding calves or cuddling dogs. Therapeutic riding takes that to a new level, and it’s been a successful method for generations, according to Gatch.
“It started in Europe many years ago,” Gatch said. “It was discovered by accident. People with disabilities were put in homes, and they started giving them horseback activities for entertainment and transportation. They found out that it was actually helping these folks. Some scientists got into it and tried to figure out what it was actually helping them. Then it spread throughout the United States.”
According to Gatch, children bond with horses, and some of them bond with the animals easier than they bond with people. The riders use a thin saddle, little more than a pad with a handle on the horse’s back, to get literally and figuratively closer to the horse.
“The horse is alive,” Gatch said. “A lot of children, not just special education children, bond with horses easily. A lot of people bond with horses. A big thing about them is their warmth. Their body warmth warms the muscles of the rider and gets them relaxed and ready to work.”
But it’s the horses’ movement that makes the difference. Gatch said she’s worked with riders fighting through cerebral palsy, autism, spina bifida, Down’s syndrome, muscular dystrophy, and seen improvement. She’s also had riders in her charge who were facing unimaginable trauma, like a group of five brothers who lost their father.
The horses help.
“When the horse walks, they use the same types of movements that humans do,” she said. “They move back and forth, side to side, and up and down. It’s just gradual. The movement contacts the muscles of the human, and the human starts stimulating those muscles. By the time we have a rider finished, we have worked almost every muscle in their body, getting blood and oxygen cycled throughout.”
Buckboard’s interim trainer is Gatch’s granddaughter, Makinzie Gregory. Gregory is a 19-year-old Miss Nebraska contestant who is planning on attending Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyo., to earn her physical therapy assistant certificate and take over head trainer duties at Buckboard. She eventually wants to earn a PhD. in physical therapy and apply that to her work at Buckboard.
She’s used her experiences at Buckboard to form her social initiative platform for the Miss Nebraska pageant – which is a compelling part of her presentation because it’s grounded in real-life experiences.
“Equine therapy is its own breed of therapy,” she said. “I’ve seen pretty much everyone, every child that I’ve worked with has improved in some way, shape or form. Their social skills improve, their abilities to reason and use logic, they really improve in whatever way they can.”
Gregory said her mom and sister also work at Buckboard, which helps create a family atmosphere the riders feel.
“It’s a lot more family-oriented,” she said. “The whole organization is family-oriented. She (Kathy) works here, I work here, my mom works here, my sister works here – that gives it a family atmosphere. I think that helps the parents, the kids – it helps people feel more comfortable with it.”
Working with the riders is therapeutic for more than just the children.
“To me, it makes me live my life more genuinely,” she said. “I see what these kids are struggling with, or whatever disability they’re struggling with. I’m grateful for what I do have, and I want to be able to reach out and help them as best as I can. To be able to see these kids improve – that’s why I do it, to see them improve.”
The pay off
Kathy Gatch sits by the arena, watching it all.
She’s watching Gregory, her granddaughter – the Miss Nebraska contestant with a long-list of pageant wins on her resume – lead a rider through a game where the rider has to guide the mare, Jojo, to place colored balls in corresponding boxes throughout the arena.
Cox, a Buckboard success story, is helping guide the rider through some of the same exercises he likely completed when he was a rider – back when just walking was a challenge.
Her son, Buckboard’s original success story, stops by for a visit. It’s almost too much, and there’s just a hint of a tear in Gatch’s eye as she looks out at what Buckboard has become.
“I never in my wildest dreams expected what happened here and the way it happened,” she said. “It almost makes me speechless. It just touches my heart. This community has supported this program so openly and so freely. There is no way I could have ever done something like this without their help.
“Sometimes people get to thinking about life, and how it’s too busy and you don’t really get to know people like you should. You don’t see them for what they really are, but everybody has things they carry. Through this project, it has opened my eyes. There are so many people who are willing to forget what is going on in their lives and give to the children.”
The program is staffed almost completely by volunteers from all walks of life – community service sentences, Western Nebraska Community College basketball teams, parents of riders – just to name a few origin stories. The trainers draw a check, as does Gatch’s husband, who cares for the horses and the arena. Gatch is a volunteer, but she doesn’t leave empty-handed.
“We had a young man who was very small,” she said. “He was 20, but he was very small. His mom’s friend said ‘I don’t know why you take him out there, they can’t help him.’ He didn’t have much core strength, he was non-verbal. We put him on the horse and we laid him down. We were walking around and he lifted his head as high as he could and his smile went from this ear to that ear. I took a picture and showed this young man’s mom. I made her a copy of it and she hung it up, and every time her friend said something she’d point to that picture and say, ‘That’s why I send him.’
“It made him happy and he thoroughly loved it. That’s the pay. We might not make money to earn a living, but you also need things like that in your heart. That’s my pay, what those kids get and how much the enjoy it.