Good Works: Challenges Met


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Horseback riding at a northeast Alabama farm offers physical therapy, recreation, increased confidence and positive social experiences for individuals with special needs.

story and photography by JOHN DERSHAM

“To fly…to feel / To touch…to breath / To laugh…to soar / To overcome…to relax / To prove them wrong /
To belong…to feel strong / To heal…to love and to be loved back / To communicate without words / We ride”

These words are posted on a large sign children and young adults pass as they enter the horse arena at Challenges Met Therapeutic Riding School. They will be carefully guided by a team of volunteers who are dedicating their time and support to providing a joyful experience… a therapeutic horse ride in the arena or on a scenic woodland trail.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Without Challenges Met, these riders might never have the opportunity to sit high atop these wonderful animals in a beautiful outdoor setting where they can laugh in the wind and shout out, “giddy up go.”

As they ride, therapy is taking place. Muscles flex, triggering the body’s balance and coordination mechanisms. Each of these riders, some of whom are frail, will physically adapt as their bodies move and flow with the movements of the horse. These exercises ultimately make them stronger and better able to perform some of the daily physical activities most of us do automatically and easily. Along the ride, they find toys and fun educational and developmental items hanging from trees and poles. They can play and figure out how things work, all while riding a horse.

Gail Carden owns and operates Challenges Met Therapeutic Riding School on her family farm in Fort Payne, Ala. “I was looking for a volunteer opportunity when I retired from teaching school,” Carden says. “I wanted to work with horses as well as special-needs kids. A friend told me about therapeutic riding schools she had heard about.”

Carden set aside 5 acres on the farm and opened Challenges Met in 2012. Challenges Met is a nonprofit organization providing therapeutic horseback riding for people of all ages who have physical, emotional, developmental, cognitive and learning disabilities. Parents, guardians, custodians and caregivers bring people to the farm to ride.

Challenges Met is a member center of PATH – the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International – which promotes safety and optimal outcomes in equine-assisted activities and therapies for individuals with special needs. Carden is a certified instructor through the organization and completes continuing-education requirements each year.

Therapeutic riding often is recommended by medical specialists and therapists. For a small fee (or free with a scholarship) to assist with operating costs, Carden and a group of volunteers provide a customized riding experience for each client.

Typically, a volunteer leads the horse, and two volunteers walk alongside. Some riders are held in place, while others support themselves. As stability and coordination increase, the rider needs less assistance. Because the horses moves riders’ bodies in a manner that mirrors the human gait, riding therapy, coupled with traditional therapy, improves flexibility, balance and muscle strength in those with physical disabilities.

In addition, Challenges Met focuses on self-esteem and confidence.

Several clients have been part of the program since Challenges Met opened. Many are young people whose enthusiasm is a pleasure to watch.

“It is a sport they can participate in when they cannot participate in other sports,” says Wendy Connell, whose child attends Challenges Met.

Vicky Kilgore, another parent, says the program helps her son make friends and do better in school.
“I love seeing my child accomplish something,” adds Barbara Mizzell.

Volunteers appear to have as much fun as the riders. “Therapy for them helps us as much as the kids,” says volunteer Melody Kelly.

“It feels good to give back,” volunteer Stephanie Fritz adds.

I ask Carden to tell me what makes her feel best about her work. “Big smiles and accomplishments,” she says. “If you think about it, what more could there be to make life better for you or your participant?”

To learn more about Challenges Met Therapeutic Riding School and its scholarship donation program, visit