Jessica Falcione rides Tonka at Heritage Stables in Webster; trainers Megan Lewis, left, and Katie Posner, far right, help guide, and Jessica's mom. middle right, helps as well.
Webster, N.Y. —
Where Lorrie Renker grew up, there were a lot of riding stables. She always liked horses.
As a young Girl Scout, maybe around age 12, she signed up to work on her “horsemanship” badge at a stable in town.
She ended up “hanging around” there, and remembers that the owner was always interested in options for children with disabilities.
She bought her first horse for $100.
Renker also grew up across the street from a girl with spina bifida. Her mother and the girl’s were friends, so Lorrie and her neighborhood pals always tried to include the girl, even though she wasn’t allowed to attend school and instead had a tutor a few times a week.
Those early experiences may have shaped Lorrie Renker’s dedication to therapeutic horsemanship — even before therapeutic riding really existed.
She’s now the director of Heritage Christian Stables in Webster, and one of fewer than 40 “master” level therapeutic riding instructors in the nation.
Her road to Webster has been an interesting one.
After graduating from Bridgewater State College with a degree in elementary education, Renker married a week later, on Martha’s Vineyard. It was her husband’s idea to get married on horseback, she says — but she didn’t object. He’s a blacksmith and worked on trains.
They agreed on “a 10 year plan,” where each of them would choose where they would live and work about every decade.
They started out in Martha’s Vineyard, where Renker worked at a stable where a camp for children with disabilities would go for riding.
“That set me on a different path,” Renker recalls.
She attended a month-long course on therapeutic riding in Michigan in the 1980s, and has followed that path ever since.
She’s now involved with the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), as an evaluator and doing certifications.
In the mid-1990s, during “her” 10 years in North Carolina, she was involved in starting a program for a four-year degree in therapeutic riding at St. Andrews University there. She took students to England, France, Germany and Greece.
The couple has also lived in Wisconsin, where she did some 4-H “stuff” and helped get a therapeutic riding program started.
Lorrie Renker has also traveled to South Korea, most recently last fall, where they are just starting therapeutic riding, six times since 2007.
She says she has “firmer roots” now.
She has been with Heritage almost seven years, and with her staff has started a “pony adventure” for children as young as age 4, horsemanship classes for those who may not want to ride, but do want to be around horses; and even an integrated 4-H group.
Linda Quinlan, Messenger Post Media
Lorrie Renker, of Williamson, has been director of Heritage Christian Stables since 2007. She is pictured here with one of the program's horses, Dandy.
The concept of “therapeutic riding” is to get therapeutic benefits from riding horses, Renker explained. The focus is on riding skills, but riders then also learn posture, balance, alignment — and even vocalization.
Just being at the stables also provides opportunities for socialization, Renker said, adding that instructors also plan educational games — like matching and learning the parts of a horse — with participants.
“There are educational, physical, emotional, social and spiritual benefits, I think,” from therapeutic riding, Renker said.
While riders are charged a $35 fee per lesson, that only funds about a third of the program, Renker added, so the rest has to come from fund-raising, grant-writing, scholarships and other sources.
That’s where this weekend’s Greater Rochester Horseman's Winter Classic comes in. They do three shows a year at Heritage with their own riders, Renker said, but this Saturday’s show has two indoor riding arenas and is open to the entire community.
The stables is also always looking for volunteers, she said, noting, “The big benefit is the big smiles on our riders’ faces.”
Renker now oversees the entire stable operation, including just two full-time, certified instructors and a number of part-timers.
“I’m more the resource, I think,” Renker said. “I spend a lot of time problem-solving.”
The program has also expanded the number of people it serves. While the stables, early on, were only open to Heritage clients, today the stables are open to the community. They probably have 25 percent Heritage participants and the rest from the greater community, Renker said.
“The amazing thing about the program is that they don’t give up,” observed Heritage spokeswoman Marketta Bakke.
“Our goal is to provide the most independence possible, within safety guidelines,” Renker said, adding, “We’re all also advocates for our horses.”
After all, it all starts with Dandy, Tonka, and their gentle stable mates.