by Jenna Trisko
For the last five years, Paige Francois of Sartell has engaged in an opportunity that allows her to bond with the animals she loves. She started riding horses with Project ASTRIDE (Adapted Specialized Training and Recreation Involving Disabled Equestrians) back in 2012 at just 4 years of age. Now 9 years old, Paige has learned valuable horsemanship skills and has found a deep connection with the horses. Each year, Paige participates in a six-week program where she rides with other participants both in an indoor arena and on outdoor trails. The experience has allowed her to get to know the horses as well as the long-term volunteers. Project ASTRIDE has 50-80 volunteers who offer horse care, support to the riders and many other services.
“It got me connected to horses,” Paige said of her passion for the program. “It brought us together. I look forward to every lesson I get to have with the horse.”
Paige’s mother, Kristin, said they learned of Project ASTRIDE from a friend. The experience has made a lasting impression on Paige.
Project ASTRIDE emphasizes fun along with other benefits such as the ability for riders to gain mobility, strength and relaxation in skeletal and muscular movements based on the stride and continuous body heat provided by the horse, along with feelings of empowerment, boosts in self-esteem and the chance to form friendships.
Heather Kraft has been with the organization since 2011 and is a certified Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International riding instructor.
Kraft further elaborated on the advantages seen in participants.
“Riders,” she said, “learn compassion for another being by learning to care for and control their horse. They learn social skills by learning to handle all emotions (anger, excitement, sadness and happiness) in a positive way, as it not only relates to their horse but also with their volunteer team. These gained strengths not only benefit the riders in the Project ASTRIDE program but also carry over into their home, school and daily life as well.”
Greg Schlosser, who serves as the organization’s chair of the fundraising and marketing committee, said Project ASTRIDE serves about 50 participants each year and hopes to increase visibility going forward. The majority of riders are children. Each participant must undergo a medical or physical examination prior to the first session.
Project ASTRIDE is a 501c3 non-profit serving central Minnesota for the past 31 years. The organization provides therapeutic riding and teaches husbandry skills to children and adults with physical, developmental and sensory challenges. The riding facility, located just outside of St. Stephen, helps program participants learn to groom, tack and ride one of six horses during their time with Project ASTRIDE. Three trained volunteers support each rider, one leading and the other two positioned on each side of the horse to provide stability to the rider.
Project ASTRIDE is a 100-percent volunteer-run organization that relies on donations from people, businesses and foundations to continue to offer its services. The group is also always seeking out additional volunteers to join the team. To learn more about Project ASTRIDE, go to www.astride.org or call 320-468-2524.