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Summer horse camp is lifeline for therapeutic horsemanship program

  • Video by Craig T. Kojima and Dennis Oda

    A one-week summer horse camp will provide a lifeline to the struggling Waimanalo nonprofit Therapeutic Horsemanship, which was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                This is Dana Vennen (Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii program’s executive director) with her therapeutic horse, Diesel. Diesel was just led out of the trailer that was used to haul the horses from their pasture (in Waipio) back to their home in Waimanalo.

    DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    This is Dana Vennen (Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii program’s executive director) with her therapeutic horse, Diesel. Diesel was just led out of the trailer that was used to haul the horses from their pasture (in Waipio) back to their home in Waimanalo.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Amanda York, a student at Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Amanda York, a student at Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Amanda York heading with her horse to a riding lesson. Amanda York, a student in the Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii, taking a lesson from Dana Vennen The nonprofit program helps people with disabilities and anyone who wants to learn to ride, is hoping to hold its summer horse camp. The camp helps support the nonprofit continue.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Amanda York heading with her horse to a riding lesson. Amanda York, a student in the Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii, taking a lesson from Dana Vennen The nonprofit program helps people with disabilities and anyone who wants to learn to ride, is hoping to hold its summer horse camp. The camp helps support the nonprofit continue.

A summer horse camp in Waimanalo could provide the needed lifeline for a therapeutic horsemanship program to return to a full gallop in the wake of the coronavirus shutdown.

Therapeutic Horsemanship of Hawaii, based next to the Waimanalo polo field, was trotting along nicely when the coronavirus shutdown disrupted its spring break camp. Between 70 and 100 riders were participating at the time, said Executive Director Dana Vennen.

But without income, the nonprofit faced the challenge of feeding 10 horses, who eat, well, like horses. Their weekly food bill runs $500.

Photo Gallery: Horse camp in Waimanalo provides summer entertainment option for kids

“We had an amazing stroke of luck” when a polo player offered a 5-acre pasture in Waipio for the entire herd to graze in, Vennen said. “In my entire 20 years, a pasture was never an option.”

The horses got a nice vacation and got to “just be horses,” as Vennen says, running freely and eating for free.

The program also pays lease rent, but one of its two landlords gave it a significant break.

Although the program’s big spring fundraiser, which usually brings in $7,000 to $8,000, had to be canceled, a few individuals gave generously — keeping the program afloat.

While kids’ summer camps across the country might not survive the coronavirus shutdowns, Vennen’s one-week summer horse camps are scheduled to launch Monday with 14 students a week.

Through the healing and strengthening power of horseback riding, Therapeutic Horsemanship has helped children and adults for nearly 40 years. Roughly 30% to 40% of students have disabilities ranging from mental and physical issues, including spina bifida, autism and cerebral palsy.

Vennen says horseback riding can strengthen both mind and body without the rider even realizing it. “That’s why you’re sore after riding, and because it’s fun it feels effortless,” she says.

She says riding a horse can even improve the gait of someone with physical disabilities or injuries.

But the real magic happens in a different kind of healing for those with emotional hurt who open up on the ride home.

Catholic Charities Hawaii therapist Aurora Mau has accompanied a middle school girl, who was physically abused at home and had behavioral problems, to the riding lessons at Therapeutic Horsemanship.

“We thought this might be a good program for her to get her away from the neighborhood,” she said. “She was cutting out of school, hanging out with friends and getting into trouble.”

Her parents weren’t interested in taking her, so “we took her down and she loved it.”

“They first started grooming the horses, and eventually would ride,” Mau said. “She had the biggest smile ever. I hadn’t seen her like that until that day. Her face lit up.”

“She wanted to go to see her horse, Kanoa. She wanted to go every week so she could see him, which is kind of exciting, just to have her open up to something she would normally not have a chance to do.

“Because I’m picking her up, it’s not so much like when we sit in her home,” Mau said. “It’s more casual. The kids are a little more relaxed. The kids feel it’s easier to share what’s in their lives.”

Therapeutic Horsemanship also relies on many volunteers to help maintain the property and care for all its livestock, which include goats and miniature horses that visit those who cannot ride or attend their program.

The part-time program director and Vennen, who are the only paid personnel, continued maintenance work through the shutdown.

In mid-May the program got the green light to conduct one-on-one lessons with those who could ride independently, and three horses returned from pasture. Then another three came back May 31.

Amanda York, 11, said she looks forward to summer camp. She started lessons at age 9, and now the 5-foot-4 Niu Valley Middle School student has grown into a poised, elegant rider, learning proper posture.

“I’ve liked horses my entire life,” she said. “I thought lessons would be interesting to take. I found that they’re very enjoyable.”

But it’s not just the animals. “The volunteers and adults are nice,” Amanda said. “Riding here is fun. I find it a good hobby.”

She enjoys it so much she spends a few hours after class volunteering to help out.

“She used to be kind of the quiet type, but now she’s the popular girl,” sharing stories about the horses with her friends, says her dad, Thomas York, adding that she also plays piano and is a good student.

“She really loves the horses,” her mom, Chalida York, said. “If she can’t go to class, she’d be really upset.”

When the lessons had to stop, Amanda would run around their yard at home like she was riding a horse and would jump obstacles, her dad said.

Amanda says her goal is to be able to jump obstacles with a horse, although the program doesn’t offer that.

Vennen waited to proceed with the camps until medium-risk businesses were opened up, although she considers the camps as low-risk.

She and the program director have come up with a plan to practice social distancing with the students, who range in age from 8 to 15.

The program itself is held entirely outdoors with plenty of sunshine, nice breezes as well as shade under a canopy of large monkeypod trees, and there are no enclosed areas.

In addition to horseback riding, students learn horsemanship training and how to care for the big animals.

During the horseback riding portion, students will easily maintain social distancing, and the children will keep their distance from one another during arts and crafts sessions by staying on individual mats spaced 6 feet apart.

As of Thursday the first three weeks were booked.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the name of Catholic Charities Hawaii.
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