WASILLA — Mucking horse stalls in a chilly September rain is an unpleasant chore, but the big smile on the face of Orion Walters, 33, says that to him, this is anything but work.

Walters spends a lot of time at Ridge Riding Facility off Bogard Road. He’s a participant in the Southcentral Therapeutic Riding program and a tireless volunteer. He spends hours every week volunteering at STRIDE to feed horses, fill water buckets groom the animals and muck stalls.

But given his druthers, Walters said he loves riding horses, especially a paint named Tinkerbell.

For most of its existence, the equine assisted therapy program Kathy Gliva started in 1994 was based in Chugiak. The nonprofit moved its operations to the Valley in 2012.

The seasonal program recently wrapped up its six-week summer session, said group president Karen Impson, who also is a Wasilla pediatrician and the mother of one of STRIDE’s regular riders. Even on days when her son is struggling, once he is on the horse, he’s giggling and talking, she said.

“They really come out of themselves on the horse,” Impson said. “The biggest problem we’ve had is getting him off the horse.”

Kristin Bernola volunteered for STRIDE for about two years before the operation moved to her stables at 4351 Bogard Rd., where her family has raised horses and cattle since the 1970s.

She said it’s amazing to see kids switch during the six-week sessions from being part of the “reluctant riders” group, to membership in the “disinclined to dismount” club.

“The horses are just so accepting of these riders. It’s just like the horse knows what that rider needs,” Bernola said.

This session, riders ranged in age from 55 to 4.5, Bernola said. She said each rider has an individual therapy plan, but all riders learn certain things necessary to safely interact.

The facility includes indoor and outdoor arenas. Posted around the ring in the indoor arena are a series of stars. At each star is a lesson, like the letter “S,” a picture of a saddle and the word “saddle,” Impson said. She said information that may not reach students in other settings can sometimes break through on horseback.

“Horses need their hair brushed just like humans,” Bernola said.

Impson said she refers other families to the program, both as a parent whose child uses the program and as a pediatrician.

She said funding is an obstacle for many families with children who could benefit from equine therapy. Impson said donations, such as through the annual Pick.Click.Give., program are used to provide scholarships for riders who can’t afford the cost otherwise.

“We want to expand the program to do more things,” Impson said.

Volunteers also are needed and training is provided, Bernola said. This summer, 62 STRIDE volunteers like Walters donated 888 hours of time, she said.

For more information, contact 929-7876, info@stridealaska.org or visit stridealaska.org.

Contact Heather A. Resz at 352-2268 or heather.resz@frontiersman.com.

I've been the managing editor of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman since September 2010. This is my second time working at the Frontiersman. I was the assistant editor here from 1996 to 1998.

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