Sometimes Sarah Madden (Wofford College Class of 2017) can explain the “magic” — sometimes she can’t. The mystery is one of the things she loves about serving as a certified therapeutic riding instructor and volunteer at HALTER (Handicapped Athletes Learning to Enjoy Riding) in Spartanburg.

Madden teaches Thursday afternoon classes this summer. She also volunteers most other days as a camp counselor, horse trainer, stable hand or side walker.

Madden’s first lesson of the afternoon is with 5-year-old Ian Clutter and Rascal, a smart and spunky pony that’s gentle but makes his riders pay attention as well. “He’s named Rascal for a reason,” says Madden.

Ian leads Rascal around the ring, an exercise that builds his balance and muscle tone. He slumps down a few times, and Madden encourages him to use his cane and upper-body strength to rise on his own. She reaches a hand down on the last fall to give a little extra assistance. Finally on the horse’s back, Ian and Rascal both look livelier. They’re ready for a little two-point and a few games around the ring. With Madden and a side walker, everyone’s safe and having fun — maybe no one more than Madden. She laughs a lot and keeps an upbeat but focused tone.

“She brings that youthful excitement to every lesson,” says Mike Hollifield, HALTER’s director. “We’ve had a number of Wofford student volunteers throughout the years, but Sarah’s taken her interest to the next level.”

Madden, an English and environmental studies major from Winston Salem, N.C., first learned about therapeutic riding during high school. She started volunteering at a center in her hometown and decided her first year at Wofford to look for opportunities in Spartanburg. She discovered HALTER and has been involved with the organization, which is affiliated with the South Carolina School for the Deaf and the Blind, ever since.

Madden explains that the horses are what make this form of therapy so special. “For a child with low muscle tone, the movement of the horse can strengthen the core, and we can tailor lessons to develop upper body strength, balance or flexibility — though any riding at all will have a positive effect on all of these areas,” she says.

The benefits aren’t limited to those with physical disabilities, says Madden. Riders with communication challenges or who lack social skills also learn strategies for interacting with horses that transfer to people.

“I’ve seen riders learn how to walk unassisted, talk clearly, gain incredible confidence and improve their social skills,” says Madden. “Horses are good for anybody, but they are certainly special therapists for riders with handicaps.”

Nikki Clutter, Ian’s mom, says her family is “HALTER for life.” She enrolled Ian in HALTER about a year ago and since then she’s seen improvement in his trunk support, upper-body tone, balance and coordination.

“His other therapists can tell a difference,” she says. “His verbal communications have improved as well. Sarah and the other instructors at HALTER make him work hard, and they teach him to use the proper riding terms. He’s developed a relationship with Rascal. Riding allows him to express himself, and the instructors all take the time to make a personal connection with Ian as well. It’s a balanced approach.”

The personal connection is clear when watching Madden and Ian work their way through poles and hoops in the ring. When the lesson is over, there are hugs and jokes and promises for new challenges next week. For Madden, who didn’t have the opportunity to ride or spend time with horses until sixth grade, it feels right.

“Sarah has been a blessing around here,” says Jaime Robertson, horse trainer and instructor for HALTER. “She came to us a year ago and was on fire to learn. She’s great with both the children and the horses. You have to read them both, and she’s a natural.”

Once Madden got her own horse — Dancer, a Saddlebred mare — she felt an immediate desire to share her.

“I let friends and family ride her, then the more I volunteered at the therapeutic riding center in high school, the more I knew that I needed and wanted to share horses with riders with handicaps the most.” says Madden.

Madden brought Dancer with her to Wofford. She boards her at a barn not too far from campus. Madden also joined the new Wofford Equestrian Team.

“I’m fascinated by the bond between horse and rider,” she says. “There’s magic in that, even more so in therapeutic riding.”

According to Madden, HALTER offers therapeutic riding, hippotherapy and equine-assisted psychotherapy. They partner with medical groups, camps and several Spartanburg-area schools. Because of the hands-on nature of the therapy, HALTER always is looking for volunteers.

“No horse experience is required,” says Madden. “It’s so rewarding! Once you get here, you might never leave.”
Madden is proof of that.

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington