“Easy, easy,” Michael Holtvluwer whispers under his breath. Throughout his hour riding lesson, Michael continually coaxes his favorite horse, Laredo, through every movement and motion.
As a 34-year-old with a central nervous system disorder, horseback riding helps Michael practice posture, strength, and overall confidence. He has been attending the therapeutic riding center, Colorado Horsepower, for about 20 years.
Colorado Horsepower began in 1984 and provides low-cost lessons and camps for people with special needs. They have students from ages four to sixty-six. The spacious ranch is located in Castle Rock and is home to about 20 horses, but a tribe of five are trained and reserved for Horsepower purposes.
Every instructor is PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship)certified. Each lesson is personalized to the students, but most classes entail basic skills such as how to whoa, move side to side, back up, and rein.
The nonprofit makes a point to focus on students’ abilities rather than their disabilities. Michael’s dad, Ed Holtvluwer, has experienced the effects of this kind of thinking.
“Kids with special needs can’t do everything that kids without them can do. That’s one of the big benefits of Horsepower— it helps their self-confidence,” Ed says. “It’s about what they can do, not what they can’t.”
At age 3, Michael was diagnosed with Dystonia, a disease that causes uncontrollable tremors. Ten years ago, he underwent a deep brain stimulation surgery where doctors placed two electrodes in his head. Those electrodes transfer signals to a small computer in his chest that counteract the signals that cause the tremors.
“His upper body and his head used to be all over the place,” Ed said during his son’s lesson, after noticing how still Michael was. “Unfortunately, since then his walking has deteriorated. Part of his body got better and part got worse.”
Luckily, riding horses provides some relief. According to Stacey Green, a Horsepower instructor, riding a horse forces one’s muscles to emulate walking motions. This quality strengthens muscles that might otherwise degrade more rapidly.
“That movement— the way riding a horse moves your hips and waist up and down, the way you have to use your core muscles to sit up straight— those are all things you have to do when you’re walking,’ Stacey says.
For Stacey, riding horses is just as therapeutic for her mind as it is for her body. As a military wife and someone who previously worked with victims of trauma, she finds peace through being in a job field where her clientele aren’t in immediate crisis. Her students are happy to be with her and grounded in the present— much like horses.
“Horses live in the moment. They’re not worried about what happened yesterday or what they’re doing later in the day. Whatever you put out there, they throw right back at you like a mirror,” Stacey says.
According to Stacey, an anxious rider will make for an anxious horse, just as a calm rider will make for a calm horse. The animals respond to the demeanor of their rider, and this quality deepens the capacity for emotional connections between animals and humans.
“It’s a great opportunity for self reflection because the horses are going to react to what you do— positive or negative,” Stacey says.
According to CRC Health, veterans are a key group that can benefit from equine therapy due to horses aptitude to aid with post-traumatic stress. Lynette Roff, a member of the Horsepower Board of Directors, has recognized this need within the veteran community and hopes to establish a program called Horsemanship for Heroes. The program would facilitate therapeutic riding sessions for military members and veterans.
“Our logo was even created to be representative of the military. The stars in the horse are the holistic symbol for every branch,” Lynette says.
As it is, it takes about $100,000 a year to maintain Horsepower. Lynette says that they depend heavily on donations from individuals, grants, and community partners like the Castle Rock Civitan and the Rotary Club.
“We try to maintain a very low tuition cost for families, especially because having a kid or kid(s) with certain medical issues can get expensive,” Lynette says. Two of their major fundraisers for the year were cancelled due to the coronavirus, but they are still holding out to have their annual gala in September.
The help of several volunteers make Horsepower possible. Many are highly esteemed in the equestrian community and have won several competitions. During lessons, they serve as head walkers (to lead the horse) and side walkers (to attend to the student). For Amy Robinson’s lesson, they took attentive care to groom and braid her horse’s hair beforehand in order to keep the bugs away.
Amy, like Michael, has been coming to Horsepower for about 20 years. Her dad, Jim Robinson, and Michael’s dad have become friends and golfing buddies thanks to a connection made through Horsepower. They’ve made a habit of sitting under shady trees in lawn chairs while their kids ride. And for Amy, age 38, that’s what it’s all about.
“She just wants to ride, and that’s what I love about this program. She’s been with some other programs before where they’ve tried to get everyone primed up for competition,” Jim says.
So, if Amy doesn’t want to do the exercises or routines for the day, she doesn’t have to. Students at Horsepower have the freedom to learn new tricks or simply let loose and have fun.
“For many students, Horsepower is the highlight of their week,” Lynette says in between a conversation with Jim and Ed. “If I could tell you one thing, it is that we are very much a family environment.”
If interested in joining the Horsepower family, you can email them at email@example.com or by visiting their Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/COHorsePower/.