SUBLETTE COUNTY – It was more than just a trail ride to raise money for MESA Thereapeutic Horsemanship; it was a birthday for the program that uses horses and horse-savvy volunteers to make life better for kids.
“We’re celebrating our five-year anniversary this year – today, actually,” MESA Executive Director Carla Sullivan said as riders gathered in the Horse Creek parking lot. Adults paid $25 to go on the day’s ride, and children paid $15. There was a dinner afterward for which adults paid $20 a ticket and kids $15.
Parents who have children in the MESA – the acronym stands for Mind, Energy, Spirit and Attitude – say the program works wonders. Or rather, the horses in the program do a thing like magic for young riders with special needs.
At present, MESA is geared toward children with physical or cognitive needs, or those with social and emotional challenges. At any one time, there might 10 to 12 horses in the program, selected mainly for their temperament, but also to fit the size of different riders.
“We have about 30 kids in our program right now, ages 3 to 21,” Sullivan said.
As Sullivan explains, the idea for the MESA program began when Neal Stelting, one of the founders, realized that parents of children who saw the benefits of therapeutic riding were going traveling a long way to get to such a program.
“I had heard that we had a number of kids from our community, Sublette County, who were driving up to Jackson Hole’s therapeutic riding program,” Stelting said. “I thought it was unfortunate that they had to travel so far. So we started one here. Lots and lots of people here have horses. It just seemed like something our community could provide.”
Staci Jones of Big Piney was one of the parents who got on board to help get MESA started because she had already seen how much therapeutic riding meant for her son, Ian, and for others with similar needs.
“We took six kids up to Jackson for several years until we go the MESA program started,” she said. “Once a week for 10 weeks we would go.”
Amanda Meikle is another of the parents who have seen big benefits from the Sublette County program for her son, Dalton, who suffered damage to the frontal lobe of his brain in a four-wheeler accident when he was 3.
“He’s a MESA kid,” Meikle said. “We’ve seen more results in riding than in counseling or different sporting events we’re used to try to help him. There’s something about a horse. The way he puts it, the horses are always nice to him, they’re always glad to see him when he comes.”
In the future, Sullivan said, is tentatively expanding to serve additional people.
“We’ve started a pilot program with some seniors – stroke victims,” she said. That pilot
That pilot program will likely continue, perhaps expanding to serve more adults. But that calls for even more specialized volunteers.
“It’s one thing keeping a small child on a horse, but it’s another thing to keep a 200-pound man who doesn’t have very good balance.”
The program also has a lift now to help those adult riders get on the horse.
At some point, Sullivan added, the program will likely take a big step and find a place for a permanent facility at which it could do even more programming.
“We don’t have a grounds yet. We don’t have land. We’re looking,” she said.
Meanwhile, the program is working just fine for the ones who need it most.
“It’s fun work,” Stelting said. “The grins and smiles that you see on the kids’ faces is pretty special.”