Empowering youth of all abilities in leadership roles

Youth in therapeutic riding program take roles and responsibilities of leading their awards and recognition banquet.

Including youth of all abilities in leadership roles can build confidence, interest and enthusiasm into a program. As the Lenawee Therapeutic Riding celebrated their year of riding, the board members embraced the messages they have heard about youth leadership and youth voice. The Lenawee Therapeutic Riding board embraced youth with disabilities that are recipients of the program to be presenters at the annual recognition banquet this year.

At previous banquets held by Lenawee Therapeutic Riding, the adult members would have stood in front of the group recognizing riders, thanking volunteers and horse owners. Past banquets were adult driven with youth being recipients of the program, but not really participants. The appreciation portion of the banquet was about adult leaders thanking everyone that makes the program operate, but it was not about the recognition of relationships, appreciation of riders, family members or volunteers. The 2015 banquet evolved into youth presentations, youth voice and a sincere appreciation from riders to volunteers.

The banquet began with a cognitive impaired young man offering a reflection prior to the meal, followed by the certified riding instructor recognizing each of the riders. As the riders were called up to the front of the banquet, each one handed their instructor a rose. After all riders were recognized with their certificate and encouraging words of their strength, the audience was given the opportunity to ask the group questions. One simple question, “What do you enjoy most about riding?” was enough to open the flood gate of public speaking on behalf of the special needs riders. As each rider shared their enthusiasm for riding, you could watch their confidence grow as a group of 100 people listened closely to each of their comments.

The banquet continued with the recognition of the horses and their owner. A cognitive impaired rider stood proud in front of the banquet and with quiet assistance from an adult, she confidently announced each horse owner and the name of the horse. She handed each volunteer a certificate of recognition and a bag of carrots for the horse. As the participant began her role, she was quiet, nervous and wanted the security of the adult. By the time she finished with her role, her voice was stronger and the volunteer was able to physically give her distance in order for her to shine.

The banquet concluded with volunteers being recognized with a certificate. When the volunteer coordinator asked if anyone wanted to say anything (referring to the volunteers), the first hand appeared in the air – a youth rider! The sincere thank you from riders was enjoyed by all for the next 20 minutes. One rider after another found their voice to express sincere appreciation and expression of love for these volunteers that give them their independence, keep them safe and allow them to experience the freedom of riding.

The Michigan State University Extension Leadership Civic Engagement work team offers programs and trainings around youth voice and youth adult partnerships; offering youth an opportunity to be participants in their growth and development, not just a recipient. Empowering youth to have a voice is a moving experience that can motivate volunteers to be advocates for youth in a complex and changing world.

For more information regarding therapeutic riding programs, contact the MSU Proud Equestrians Program

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