2016-06-25 / Columnists


Gretchen Colman and the Path to PATH

For more than 15 years, Gretchen Colman’s Mackinac Island summers have revolved around children and horses. Colman, a Kalamazoo native, is the director of The Little Barn on Mission Hill. She recently completed international certification as a therapeutic riding instructor. Ms. Colman is the only Island equestrian to have this distinction. Her path was one of hard work and perseverance.

Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) is a worldwide nonprofit. In the United States, PATH is based in Denver, Colorado. This past winter, Ms. Colman attended the weeklong certification program at the barn, Healing Strides, in Roanoke, Virginia. There were eight others in the class, but she was the only one to receive certification.

PATH is about teaching riding instructors how to teach individuals with special needs. They do not teach candidates how to ride, per se; rather they advocate that their instructors have passed specific criteria and training under their guidelines so that they can instruct those in need. They teach how to teach. PATH offers lessons on horses for stroke victims and trauma victims of all ages. They also teach horsemanship to those with Down’s syndrome, muscular dystrophy, Parkinson’s disease, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and amputees. Individuals with such a wide range of symptoms and issues require different sets of training. It has been found that horses provide a wonderful and nurturing outlet for many people, and many people want to be exposed to them. Everything from learning to ride to being able to hold a brush and groom a horse can be a very important experience for many people, especially those who have trauma and limitations.

Gretchen Colman on Poppy at the Lilac Parade Sunday, June 12. (Photograph by Lin Sheppard) Gretchen Colman on Poppy at the Lilac Parade Sunday, June 12. (Photograph by Lin Sheppard) The benefits to children are amazing. Horses have helped to foster in them a sense of personal accomplishment and focus beyond their illnesses or injury. The Roanoke facility gives more than 350 lessons a year. It is a very positive program.

The horses used in PATH programs are wide ranging. Much like horses used at camps, they are often donated. They range in breeds from quarter horses, off track Thoroughbreds, ponies, and draft crosses. But they end up being special and are worth their weight in gold. The horse must be tolerant as well as being stable to adjust to different riders, weights, and needs. Some students may not have any muscle capabilities in their legs or their arms, or they may have trouble holding their heads up or shifting weight, things all of us take for granted. Tack also has to be adapted or modified for certain riders.

Gretchen Colman traveled to the center daily and learned many things, like a U.S. Pony Clubber, from all types of equipment, grooming protocol, saddlery, how to ride patterns, and demonstrate commands when instructed. All of this was compressed into one exciting and exhaustive week. She took her riding practicum on a 16.2 hands retired Thoroughbred. Her main instructor at the center was a former jockey from Canada. The woman had come to PATH via a stint as the former coach for the Canadian Paralympic Team. When it came to working with students, Ms. Colman was assigned two to teach. She noted that many of the horses at the center do not wear a bit in their mouths. They steer by the use of lead lines clipped on each side. Often, the rider will sit assisted with a side-walker on each side (two people to walk next to them to be on hand). Progress for each student is on an individual basis, and compared to “regular” teaching and training, things come very slowly for some.

Training techniques include much positive reinforcement. Ms. Colman uses many of these ideas in the philosophy of running The Little Barn, home of the Mackinac Island Children’s Riding Academy. She recognized her own desire and need for therapeutic training when she worked with an Island child several years ago, who wanted to learn about horses and to ride, and who had special needs. Ms. Colman began her association with Island youth helping to teach the “Giddy-Up and Go” riders some 12 years ago, when the old Mackinac 4-H offered lessons at Great Turtle Park. This past winter, she was awarded a scholarship from the Mackinac Island Children’s Riding Academy for this type of certification she had hoped to pursue, and did.

PATH requires its graduates to continue their education by attending workshops and clinics. In Michigan, there are several such centers. These include barns in Kalamazoo, Traverse City, and Charlevoix. The purpose of the therapeutic riding barns is centered on its students and participants. The teachertraining process happens only at certain sanctioned times during the year.

Managing The Little Barn on Mackinac Island is a full-time commitment. Ms. Colman is there for her students as well as the horses, Poppy, Clarence, Henry, and Charming. Programs continue into mid-September, as she offers “homework and horses” afterschool programs for Island junior equestrians. When not on Mackinac, Gretchen Colman can be found volunteering as a jump judge for the Richland Park 3 Star Eventing meet, working at Free Rein in Brevard, North Carolina, and the Naples (Florida) Equestrian Center.

Candice Dunnigan is a resident, writer, and equestrian on Mackinac Island. She belongs to various national and local equine organizations.

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