NORWAY, Mich. (WZMQ) – The Dickinson County Fairgrounds is currently hosting a therapy program that has garnered attention for its incredible impact on people with disabilities. The Proud Equestrian Program, led by Occupational Therapist Bonnie DePue, is a one-week-a-year initiative that serves around 40 riders annually. With the program in full swing, organizers are calling for more volunteers, community involvement, and additional horses to meet the growing demand.
With an impressive 35 years of experience under her belt, DePue is well aware of the program’s profound effects on its participants. “To really understand the impact, you need to come see what’s going on in the ring. You need to see the kids and talk to the families. Because truly, you want to find out what this program means. Ask the parents of the kids,” DePue stated passionately.
While DePue runs a successful full-time Therapeutic Riding Program in Lansing, she makes it a point to visit the Upper Peninsula once a year in August to provide much-needed services. This year, in order to meet the needs of the riders in the program, DePue trailered three of her own horses across the Mackinac Bridge to the Dickinson County Fairgrounds.
“When you talk about impact, and how much change can you see in a week, let me tell you these kids start day one where they left off before. So it’s really amazing that can happen,” DePue remarked, highlighting the remarkable progress that participants make in just one week.
In addition to the need for more volunteers and horses, the program also requires funding to continue its vital work. Currently supported by the United Way, the Proud Equestrian Program is seeking additional financial support to sustain its operations and expand its reach to more individuals in need.
Backed by the 4H, this transformative therapy program has been able to make a lasting impact on individuals with disabilities, thanks to its outstanding sponsors, notably the United Way.
“The community is a huge piece, because if we don’t have the support of the program within the community, we can’t serve. And that’s what this is really about, serving people,” she emphasized.
The Proud Equestrian program caters to a wide range of individuals, from young children to adults. DePue, with her expertise as an occupational therapist, understands the diverse needs of the participants. “In 4H, we can go into adults because it’s part of the school special ed programs as far as age group. Some address specifically mental health issues, some are inclusive of mental health but they do everything else. So as an occupational therapist, I see a wide spectrum of individuals,” DePue explained.
This week, the community has come together to support the program in various ways. Local businesses have generously provided lunch to the hardworking volunteers, ensuring that the program runs smoothly and efficiently.
The horses used in the program are also donated by members of the community. However, finding suitable horses is not an easy task. DePue and her team go through a meticulous screening process to ensure the safety and compatibility of the horses. This year, there are a total of eleven local horses involved in the program, but there is a pressing need for more qualified horses to meet the growing demand.
“For programs to survive in the last few years has been really tricky,” DePue admitted. The pandemic posed significant challenges, as fundraising events had to be canceled, making it difficult to sustain equine therapy programs. With riders unable to participate, the programs faced an uncertain future.
Despite the obstacles, the Proud Equestrian program continues to thrive, thanks to the resilience and support of the community. The dedication of volunteers, the generosity of local businesses, and the commitment of sponsors like the United Way have ensured that individuals with disabilities can experience the life-changing benefits of equine therapy.
Some programs have survived because it means so much to the community, and the communities have rallied support. “They see the change in the kids. They see the smiles, and it’s so much bigger than that. It’s challenging someone to have a change in their life,” DePue expressed.
For the Dickinson County program, a huge piece is getting enough volunteers to expand the program beyond the one week per year time period that is currently offered, and then funding.
“We’ve talked about having me come up more than just the one week per year. To be able to run a program more consistently, it usually comes down to having enough volunteers from the community. Because the same core people are still doing it, but we’re all getting a little older each year,” noted DePue. DePue proposes she come to the U.P. to do some clinics to show locals how to screen and train a horse to be a therapy horse. This idea would be for locals who have a horse that they think might be a good candidate to safely provide a therapy ride to a medically fragile rider, but aren’t quite sure how to get their horse involved.
There are opportunities to contribute, whether it’s somebody that has equipment to donate, or somebody that wants to donate shavings, like the local Tractor Supply Company, which has donated shavings to the program. The program is able to accept leather saddles as a donation, however they only use synthetic saddles for therapy rides. So the leather saddles are sold to generate more funding to keep the program alive. The program can use English, Western, or Dressage synthetic saddles. The program also needs lead lines with at least an 18-inch chain on the leadline clasp to fulfill a specific requirement for a therapy ride. There is a specific need for the skills of a leatherworker, to customize the closed-toed stirrups necessary for the therapy rides.
“We have an old horse trailer that a committee member stores equipment in, and some equipment wears out. They have a wishlist of equipment that needs replaced,” noted DePue.
Walking for an hour at a time, in the sand arena, for 5 days straight, seven classes per day, the volunteers get exhausted. Missionary groups can help out, or youth groups. The Proud Equestrian Program welcomes and challenge sports or football teams, or students who want extra credit for school or National Honor’s Society. The Proud Equestrian Program offers a volunteer opportunity for the community to take advantage of.
Interested volunteers can contact Jessica Ice, the Dickinson County 4-h Coordinator. Her office is the MSU extension office at Bay College West.
The therapy program at the Dickinson County Fairgrounds will continue through tomorrow, offering a unique opportunity for individuals with disabilities to experience the transformative power of equestrian therapy.