Son's recovery inspired Bonnie Riley's passion: her equine therapy center

Wednesday, January 8, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:36 a.m. CST, Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Following her son Bart's critical injuries in an airplane accident, Bonnie Riley developed the Riley Equine Center in Boonville.

COLUMBIA — Bonnie Riley's long journey to her dream finally became a reality three years ago on a chilly October morning.

The horses were ready, the riders were excited, and the air buzzed with anticipation. But Riley was still a bundle of worries: Would the animals behave? Would the volunteers get their boots muddy? Would the riders have fun?

Riley Equine Center

Where: 17244 Doyle Road, Boonville


Phone: 660-882-2377 and 660-882-6400

Fax: 660-882-7137

Everything turned out well, but that's just the type of person Riley is.

"I remember the opening of the center worked out beautifully," she said. "Everyone giggled and the horses were perfect, and when I got done with everything, I just sat down and thought, 'This is it.'"

A licensed psychologist, Riley always knew there was something more she could do. She had grown up competing and showing horses, but a tragedy unveiled a new direction that combined her professional training with her passion.

After her son Bart was critically injured in an airplane accident in 1992, Riley took stock of her situation and began putting the pieces together to develop the Riley Equine Center in Boonville.

"If Bart hadn't had his accident, if I weren't so deeply steeped in the disability realm of it, I would have missed this whole piece," Riley said. "I would've just kept counseling in my little office and riding my horse on the weekends."

The center opened in 2010, offering recreational and therapeutic riding lessons, equine-assisted psychotherapy and horsemanship clinics. It runs with the help of an instructor, an occupational therapist and about 80 volunteers.

"The center offers physical, emotional and mental therapy," Riley said. "We work with everyone from the physically disabled to the mentally disabled to people with low self-esteem and other emotional challenges. We've got the whole package here."

Therapeutic riding, called hippotherapy, is a physical therapy strategy where the movement of the horse is used to help improve posture, balance and general development, especially for those with motor difficulties.

Several published research studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of hippotherapy on patients with disorders of the central nervous system.

Riley said she is able to watch such miracles every day — much as she did her son's ultimate recovery.

"My whole mission in life is to serve, to be useful, to help and to bring about healing," she said. "This endeavor has far exceeded my expectations."

An accident and a miracle

Bart Riley, now 43, was piloting an ultralight airplane on Oct. 18, 1992, when he crashed near Blackwater, Mo., about 35 miles west of Columbia.

He was taken to MU's Trauma Center, where he underwent 17 hours of surgery and then remained unconscious for seven months.

"I told the doctors, 'I think he's in here'," Bonnie Riley said. "And they told me home was where he needed to be. So we took him home for a visit, and while at home, he woke up."

The accident left Bart Riley blind, with a severe brain injury and loss of both legs. His mother said the community around mid-Missouri played a key role in his support and recovery. She said she is still touched by people's kindness.

"They were there for us. They talked with us, prayed for us, sent us cards," Bonnie Riley said. "We were just held up by them."

Watching her son's recovery and becoming involved with Unlimited Opportunities, an organization that helps people with disabilities, inspired her idea of a therapeutic riding center.

At the time, she had no background in starting up a riding business and didn't know where to find the resources or the time. Until the answer to all her problems seemed to fall from the sky, she said.

A gift from a stranger

When Riley met small-business consultant Terry Vair, he was just an acquaintance of someone who boarded a horse at her place. He simply asked her to describe her dream.

"For years, I've wanted to have a riding center so people can enjoy my horses as much as I do," Riley told him. "I'd like to offer this to people who aren't as fortunate as me, to people who long to be on a horse, to smell them and kiss them and pet them."

"I can do that for you," Vair replied.

Vair helped Riley with starting up the business aspect of the center, doing things such as setting up their nonprofit status and writing the by-laws while Riley focused on the horses.

"I believe that God sent him right here so he could show me how to set this business up," Riley said. "He has since moved on and I'm not even sure where he is, but it's like he dropped out of the sky to help me do this."

In July 2012, after facing a number of weather-related challenges, including a severe drought that summer, Riley knew she needed an enclosed shelter to protect her clients from extreme weather conditions.

She was confronted with a another decision: Should she shut down the center or expand it?

"So of course, I got bigger," she said with a laugh. "I took the plunge, borrowed a big chunk of money and built an indoor arena, which opened in April 2013, so now we are never limited by the weather."

Bonnie Riley's story

Riley was born in Oklahoma City and got her first horse at the age of 9. She fell in love with horses, which led to horse shows, as well as a fascination with rodeos.

"Horse addiction is something you're kind of born with," she said. "The more you feed it, the worse it gets."

She moved to Columbia to attend Columbia College and began dating the man who ended up as her husband, Jerry Riley. After they were married, she resumed her education at MU to become a licensed psychologist.

For nine years, she worked at a family counseling center, eventually opening a private practice in Boonville.

The couple had two sons, Bob and Bart, and they lived a happy but quiet life. After Bart's accident caused their world to flip, Bonnie Riley said, it led her to the center and eventual peace and happiness.

"Within the first hour the center had opened, it was more invigorating and fulfilling than any horse show I had ever competed in," she said. "I have found my passion."

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