Horseback Riding Empowered This Woman to Take Life by the Reins

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Written by: Amy Asaturyan

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It’s no secret that animals provide us with comfort, contribute to our happiness and even allow us to see the world from wholly new eyes. The bond between humans and animals cannot be explained—it must be experienced. On occasion, these experiences can quite literally be life changing.

Karissa Peterson is a horseback rider with Down Syndrome and the winner of the PATH International 2016 Adult Equestrian of the Year Award. She’s been riding for multiple years and has made remarkable progress in her ability to participate in independent equine activities without the aid of a leader or side walker.

It all comes from her work with Hearts & Horses, an organization dedicated to promoting the physical, cognitive, emotional and social well being of people with special needs. Established in 1997, and nestled in the foothills of Northern Colorado, Hearts & Horses is a non-profit therapeutic riding facility, actively changing lives for people with disabilities through equine assisted therapy.

“The title of PATH International Independent Equestrian of the Year is a title that holds great significance,” says Tamara Merritt, Director of Special Programs for Hearts & Horses. “[Karissa] has strived for excellence in the field of therapeutic riding and is highly capable of controlling a thousand pound animal. [She] has wiped away the traditional stereotypes commonly seen with individuals with Down Syndrome.” 

Merritt recalls, “When [Karissa] started at our center, she needed the assistance of three volunteers. She was hesitant to push herself, as was her family to have her be pushed. When she slowly began making progress and dismissed the faithful volunteers by her side, everyone cautiously held their breath. What quickly became apparent was this young lady, for the first time in her life, did not feel the limits of her disability. Once that switch was flipped she progressed quickly—trotting independently, posting trot without stirrups, bareback, jumping and barrels.”

For Karissa, riding became a source of strength and a way to experience life without her usual limits.

Christopher Price is a volunteer with Hearts & Horses whose been working with Karissa the longest. “In the saddle she blooms, she is in charge,” he explains. “The mounting block is a transition. The smiles, hugs, joy and enthusiasm are tempered into a more quiet and professional rider. [But] make no mistake—the joy is still there. She has ridden many horses, but even her current favorite can be challenging on occasion. [Karissa] is gently assertive, consistent and exceedingly patient. She does not judge them for their peculiarities, often asking to work with them again. She understands that the challenges make her a better rider. From this she demonstrates a growing pride and skill in each ride.”

Service animals, especially dogs, are well-recognized for their ability to help people cope. But according to Karissa’s parents, Jim and Pam Peterson, working with horses has made unimaginable transformations in their daughter’s life. “Therapeutic riding has provided our daughter with skills and accomplishments that no other activity can,” Pam explains. “The independence she rides with has given her the confidence to excel at her restaurant job, communicate effectively with people, and take responsibility for many facets of her life.”

“Riding gives [Karissa] a sense of being ‘normal,’” says Jim. ”She is acutely aware of her differences from others, however, when she’s on a horse those differences disappear. Riding has changed our daughter’s life and we are so appreciative of the opportunity to express our gratitude to everyone who has helped her to become an independent rider.”

“Normal is good,” Christopher says. “But horses are transformational, and in riding, [Karissa] found something exceptional.”

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