Nellie Owen arrives 45 minutes before her Friday afternoon riding class begins. She likes coming early, she says. It’s her time to smell the horses.
She sits by the fence to watch an earlier class that’s still in session. Each horse that passes in front of her she greets like an old friend.
“Hi, big guy,” she says to one. “You’re putting on a little weight, aren’t you?”
“Hey there, you old slow-poke,” she says to another. “I brought you some carrots today.”
Owen is one of the 98 riders receiving equine therapy this summer at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center, on Missouri 163, south of Columbia.
In the 2 ½ years she has been riding, Owen has formed a special bond with many of the center’s horses.
“With all the love they get from us, they’re just spoiled rotten,” she said. “These are the best-loved, best-kept horses in the state of Missouri.”
In weekly 60-minute sessions, Owen and the other Cedar Creek riders perform a series of exercises designed to improve balance, coordination, strength and flexibility.
The exercises target the body primarily, but it’s the spirit that benefits most, Executive Director Karen Grindler says.
“Riders with disabilities approach horses with a completely different physical energy, and the horses respond to it,” she says. “The bond between them is incredible.”
In Friday afternoon’s class, instructor-in-training Sue Becklenberg encourages students to ride at a trot and gives them a chance to race against the clock.
Madison Constance, 10, riding a mare mule named Wylie, has the fastest time. Owen, on a quarter horse named Mac, comes in last.
Despite the slow showing, Owen pulls out the promised bag of carrots for Mac at the end of the session.
“He can’t run any faster than you do,” she says. “But at least he’s solid.”
Behind them, Madison slowly walks Wylie from the corral to the stable.
As Grindler takes off the saddle, Madison throws her arms around the mule’s neck and buries her face in her mane.
“’Bye, Wylie. Goodbye,” she whispers.
Says Owen, “Now look at those two. Isn’t that a pretty picture? You’re so beautiful with that mule, Madison. I wish I’d brought my camera.”