Busy volunteers at center in Granite Falls, Minn., say demand is great for therapeutic riding
GRANITE FALLS — For children with challenges ranging from autism to learning disabilities, progress can come ever so slowly, one step at a time.
The opportunity to be there when that step is made is what brings Ginny Dambroten to the Lee-Mar Ranch Equine Center along U.S. Highway 212 West in Granite Falls.
“To go into that arena and see a small child ride a horse, and the smile on her face,’’ said Dambroten, pausing before adding: “It makes you cry to see that.’’
Her tears of joy come often these days, thanks to her role as a volunteer and board member with the nonprofit center.
Since 2010, an all-volunteer team has been offering therapeutic horse riding sessions for youth and adults with needs.
Therapeutic riding offers benefits to people with a wide range of challenges, according to Keisha Louwagie, head instructor at the center.
Horse riding can help improve flexibility, balance, coordination and muscle tone.
It can especially help young people build communication skills, develop a sense of responsibility, and realize the rewards of emotional attachment, said Louwagie, a school social worker with the Yellow Medicine East district.
More than 60 volunteers devote time in one way or another to make this possible at the center.
It takes all of their help: The center is currently offering two sessions, two nights a week in its 70-foot-by-150-foot indoor arena. All 11 of the center’s horses will be put to work during the sessions. It can require as many as three side walkers to accompany each rider, noted Sally Neubauer, an instructor and school social worker with the MACCRAY district.
All of this got started when Jerry Ims, now the center’s director, learned that the family owning the Lee-Mar Arena and an adjoining 9½ acres was interested in selling the property. Built in the 1950s by Lee and Martha Mooney, the arena was originally used for their show horses. They also made it available for equestrian events and activities.
Ims had grown up in Granite Falls and didn’t want to see the sun set on an arena that that played so important a role in the region.
His sentiments were shared by many. They organized as a nonprofit, purchased the property in 2009, and ever since have been investing in the facilities while offering therapeutic riding programs.
The arena is also used to board horses, and to host clinics for horse riding and rodeo enthusiasts.
The center relies mainly on funds raised through an annual event, individual donations and sponsorships.
To date, Ims said they have raised more than $60,000 for materials used to make improvements to the facility. All of the labor — including that of replacing its 22,000-square-foot roof — has been provided by volunteers.
Local organizations, such as Lions clubs in Granite Falls, Sacred Heart and Maynard, raise funds for scholarships that help needy families with the costs for the sessions.
Louwagie and Neubauer are currently completing their certification through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. The goal is to have the facility certified by the organization as well. That would allow more families to obtain financial help through insurance and other programs.
The demand for therapeutic riding in the area is greater than many realize. Ims and Louwagie said they could offer more sessions, if only there were more volunteers and instructors available.
The main focus is on helping children with special needs but make no mistake: Their parents and guardians benefit greatly too. It gives them a chance to stand outside of the arena, talk to other parents of children with needs, and enjoy a little down time from their responsibilities, said Ims and Dambroten.
Ims said that he’s hoping the center can also expand its services to more adults in the years ahead. Veterans returned from overseas combat zones and their families are among those he would like to assist.
For Dambroten, the opportunity to help young people is all about investing in their future, or as she calls it, “paying forward.”
“And I think our world need to be more willing to pay forward,’’ she said.
To learn about volunteering at the center, or supporting its upcoming Raise the Roof annual fundraiser, check out the website: http://lee-marranch.com/
This year’s fund raiser will be April 5 at the Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort and feature live and silent auctions and entertainment by HickTown Mafia.