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Riding therapy helps hundreds: Buckboard academy’s plans for indoor arena would help even more
November 04, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez

Photo by Tim Abshire/Special to the Citizen Buckboard rider Briana Beck throws up her arms in triumph while side walkers Kasina Clark and Jessica Versild hold her steady in the saddle at Buckboard Therapeutic Riding Academy Center.

It’s fall, which means you’ll find an empty riding corral at the Buckboard Therapeutic Riding Academy Center just east of Gering heading toward Melbeta. At the same time, you’ll see evidence of several organizations and businesses who have helped to keep the school running for more than 18 years. Near the back end of the corral, hand prints and signatures of the Western Nebraska Community College Cougar men’s basketball team are painted on the wall of a structure which serves as a cover for haystacks and keeps riders cool during the summer.

Then, there are stalls in a small red barn built with materials donated by Home Depot next to it. Inside the corral, blue steps which help children mount the horses were built by an industrious donor who raised $2,000. Because building the steps didn’t cost much, the excess funds sponsored several riders.

Next to the blue steps is a one-of-kind lift designed by a donor paralyzed from the waist down, who with aspirations of becoming a farmer, couldn’t climb into a tractor on his own. So, he let necessity become the mother of invention. He designed a hydraulic lift machined by John Deere and funded by the Regional West Hospital Foundation which could safely raise him from the ground to a tractor cab. His dream of becoming a farmer became a reality. So, why not help others? Now retired, the once farmer and inventor donated the lift to Buckboard.

These days, the riding academy – a 501c3 nonprofit program which has helped hundreds of special needs children over the years – is looking to change even more. It is counting on thousands of dollars in donations to build an indoor arena so more children can be helped year round.

“We would not be able to do this without the community,” said Buckboard’s Founder and Director Kathy Gatch. In a soft-spoken and caring voice, she unwaveringly listed a number of donors who have helped, including Leadership Scottsbluff, Panhandle Coop, Soroptimist International of Scotts Bluff County, the United Way, the Kiwanis Club, and the Shriners, among others.

In the nearly two decades Buckboard has been in business, Kathy has been its chief instructor. But that’s going to change come January when she starts her transition into retirement, something she might have done years ago if it wasn’t for her love of children and horses. Though she suffers from arthritis, it doesn’t stop her from teaching children to learn how to ride, and helping them feel better about themselves. “I really love horses and kids. It always bothered me to see ranch horses, when they are too old to work. They just get put out to pasture,” she said. “And they’re happy, but they don’t have a job to do. I thought, well, I’ll just give the horses a job to do.”


Aside from donated equipment and borrowed horses, Buckboard relies heavily on volunteers, a few of them veterans.

The volunteers work in tandem with one who leads the horse, while two others called side walkers, keep the rider positioned on the saddle. Side walkers, who also help out with activities, can develop a meaningful rapport with the children. “Sometimes a child will respond better to a side walker than to an instructor.

I have no problem with that,” Kathy said. “If that side walker can get a child to do something I can’t, that’s great, because we want to get them interacting, and we want those children participating in activities.”

One veteran who volunteers, Tim Abshire, served in the U.S. Air Force for eight years from 1992 to 2000 as a structural mechanic for aircraft including the KC-10 refueler, and the B2 Spirit (strategic stealth bomber) at bases in California and Missouri.

Abshire started volunteering at Buckboard in 2004. His wife, a doctor of physical therapy at Regional West Hospital, found out about Buckboard through patients. He and his wife, who now works at Heritage Estates, carve out time during the summer to volunteer. They also bring their two daughters, who are clients.

The couples’ oldest daughter Danara, 10, wears a right prosthetic leg because of a birth defect. The local Shriners have donated a series of prosthetics since she was a year old. She’s now on her 17th leg, with the cost of one leg ranging from $8,000-$10,000 dollars. Another daughter Lillyana, 8, has vision problems. “She can’t focus on near or far distances,” Abshire said. “And wears thick glasses like the ends of coke bottles. Once she turns 18, she’ll be able to get Lasik to correct her vision.”

Abshire’s youngest child, son Lessly, 5, often joins his sisters for rides because the family doesn’t want him to feel left out. Kathy was happy to oblige.

“I’m actually a stay-at-home dad,” Abshire said. “I enjoy being here when kids get out of school.” Abshire is also an avid photographer. His interest in creating images started when he was a student at Mountain High School in Lakewood, Colo. He shoots many of the events at Buckboard, aside from freelancing for weddings and senior portraits. After his wife earned her doctorate at Creighton University, they put down roots in Scottsbluff still close enough to family in Denver.

“We love Kathy; She’s like a grandmother,” Abshire said. “All three of our kids love spending time there. She will go out of her way to help anyone. Although medical problems have slowed her down, she is still the softest hearted person. She loves animals. She’s the sweetest lady.”

Another of Kathy’s volunteers decided on a career because of Buckboard. “We have kids that didn’t know what direction they were going,” Kathy said. “Then they find their niche. One of the little gals, Jocelyn Bruner is now at Chadron State earning her teaching degree. She’s also going to be the assistant instructor this summer.”

Bruner, 18, started out volunteering when she was a sophomore at Scottsbluff High School, becoming a paid staff member four years ago. She’s now working in her first year majoring in education to earn a K-12 teacher’s certification. “I actually heard about it from one of mom’s friends. I was interested in horses, and special needs,” Bruner said. “It fit perfect. Yeah, when I started, I wasn’t sure what I would do. Buckboard sparked that whole interest in special education.”

Bruner said she plans on getting a teaching job somewhere in the Panhandle, but prefers Scottsbluff or Chadron. But for now as an assistant instructor, she’ll return home over Christmas break to meet with the new lead instructor and Kathy to start the planning for the summer.

“As an instructor, I have a group of riders that are my own,” Bruner said. “I’ll conduct sessions, go through plans for the whole summer, and keep record of what we have done, and what we need to do with them. Last year, I had between eight to 10 riders.”

Bruner said of the kids they teach during the summer, that “nobody thinks they’re capable of learning, that eventually they achieve their own success. You see little successes. I have a cousin who started riding with us when she was a year old. She suffers from a rare disorder (agenesis of the corpus callosum) which prevents her brain from communicating with itself. She was sort of like a sack of potatoes,” Bruner said. “But now she responds to voices. She reaches for things. She’s become more physically stable. And she’s become a lot more vocal.”

Otherwise, without therapy, someone stricken with the condition would remain in a wheel chair, not really being able to do much because their mental capabilities would stop developing.

After plans are set, Bruner will start back to work at Buckboard in the first week of June, to learn as much as she can from Kathy before she retires.

“She’s a very loving, compassionate person,” Bruner said about her mentor. “I knew from the first day. You know instantly you could trust her. And she would instantly care about you. She looks at the kids as her own kids. I kind of adopted that way of thinking, too. It’s my mindset every time I go on. These kids are our entire world. We’re non-profit; not there for money. What she does is absolutely amazing.”

The power of healing

Learning about therapy began with her son Rick. He was 17 and a senior at Gering High School in 1986, when the left side of his body was left paralyzed after a car accident just south of Gering. He was driving his 1968 GTO on a winding road near the old Gering Valley School, heading home just a few miles away to park the GTO and drive another car to Chadron State, where he planned to meet up with his mom to take in a football game.

Instead, as he approached the top of a winding road, he made a sudden turn to avoid something in the road. Kathy suspects there was a car there, sticking out too far. “We don’t know, and he doesn’t remember,” she said. The car went end over end, and Rick, holding onto the steering wheel, tumbled through the windshield.

After her son’s accident, Kathy committed herself to hundreds of hours of her son’s therapy. He was in a coma for more than seven months.

“The doctors said my husband and I could have two weeks with him at home, but if they didn’t see any change, they’d send him to Colorado,” she said. Needless to say, they were able to keep him at home and he eventually graduated from high school in 1987.

These days, Rick lives a quarter mile down the road from Buckboard with his wife. Their daughter bore triplets. “So, now he’s a grandpa,” Kathy said.

During Rick’s recovery, Kathy, who had just finished her degree in adaptive physical education, didn’t know about therapy riding. All she knew was how the animals calmed her.

A few years later, Kathy began working at Diversified Services in Torrington, Wyo. During her 10 years there, the company, a sheltered workshop for handicapped adults, sent her to Laramie for classes. Afterward, “I wanted to start a (riding therapy) program, but it was expensive. They decided not to put the money out,” she said. “So, I cashed out my retirement and started Buckboard.”

While she was at Diversified, Kathy noticed the impact the animals had on people. “I took my own dog to work with me for a while,” she said. “It was calming even to the adults.”

Getting involved in Rick’s therapy guided Kathy toward therapy horseback riding “when I found out what the horses could do,” she said. She first brought horses to the farm after her family’s dairy operation closed, and the empty buildings were converted into stables. “You don’t realize just how much of an impact they have on children who suffer from autism, Down syndrome and ADHD.”

Since 1998, Buckboard has taught horseback riding to hundreds of disabled adults and children. The program has combined instruction in traditional horsemanship with physical therapy, providing services to meet the specific needs that address cerebral palsy, autism, mental retardation, amputees, muscular dystrophy, and emotional disturbance among other ailments.

Therapeutic horseback riding, which began in Europe about 60 years ago, found its way to the United States in the 1940s.

Kathy added, “There’s a special bonding. I don’t like the word normal, but normal people don’t know how to interact with special needs people. It’s kind of stand-offish. These kids have feelings, the same as anyone else. They just can’t express that to us. A lot of times, they feel unaccepted, and maybe looked down upon. When they bond with that horse, that’s their friend. That horse accepts them no matter what.”

Kathy calls the progress the children make, “Amazing. We had a little guy, who had a lot of issues going on, but the main one was behavior,” she said. “He caused a lot of problems at school, or so I heard. When he came out, we went over the rules with his parents. We put him on a small horse because he was a small boy.

And, the first time he came to ride, he started acting up. So I said, I’m going to count to five, and if you haven’t quit screaming and acting naughty, then you have to get off the horse, you can’t ride until next week. So, he didn’t quit, we took him, and told his mom to bring him back next week. We got to three the next week, and didn’t have to count the next week.”

Kathy said, riding the horses stimulates circulation, which increases the amount of oxygen and blood to the muscles and brain, which is key to participating in the activities at Buckboard. “We play a lot of games using balls, rings, boxes and a pole,” she said. “The kids don’t even know they’re working on balance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, or behavior problems because they’re having fun, but the basis of their time is with the horse moving.”

Like the kids she’s teaching, Kathy does the same. She keeps moving. By spring, she’ll usher in a new group of volunteers for a half day of training, and start preparing for another season of healing.

For more information about Buckboard, or if you would like to volunteer, contact Kathy at 308-783-2319.

Founder/Director Kathy Gatch and Sid, her oldest horse at 41.

Assistant instructor Jocelyn Bruner leads rider Danara Abshire, 10, around orange cones, while her younger sister Lillyana, 8, watches. Bruner is studying special education at Chadron State.
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