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Today's Family Magazine

Lake Erie College Therapeutic Riding Program

Lake Erie College students, Madeline Long and Jessica Burley, assist with school horse, Willie and a therapeutic riding participant in a session.

By Deanna Adams

Horseback riding is an enjoyable sport that has a surprising number of benefits—mentally, as well as physically.  It’s been known to reduce stress, improve balance and coordination, and even help develop problem-solving skills. 

Horsemanship has also been proven as a great advantage in improving the lives of those with developmental difficulties.  Interaction with horses is becoming widely acknowledged for its therapeutic effects.  Horse therapy, or equine-assisted services, involves interactions between patients and horses, treating a number of conditions, such as substance abuse, mental illness, and autism spectrum disorder. 

Lake Erie College in Painesville has had much success with their Therapeutic Riding Program, which provides equine-assisted services to aid in cognitive, emotional, physical and social development.  Their mission is two-fold: To guide, educate, and support emerging therapeutic horsemanship professionals, while serving as an alternative therapy for those with developmental disabilities.  The program is open for adolescents, ages 8 to 14, who weigh under 150 pounds, and are ambulatory (able to walk on one’s own). 

And at the helm is Sarah Dwyer, certified therapeutic riding instructor, and a graduate of the Lake Erie College School of Equine Studies. 

“The students gain a number of benefits through the program,” Dwyer says.  “They learn how to ride safely while working on their riding skills and in addition, they build physical strength, communication with the horse, hand-and-eye coordination, and ultimately learn social responsibility, and develop a relationship with the animal.”  She adds that eye contact with the horse is important to develop trust.

 Activities include grooming, leading and riding the horses, always alongside the supervision of a certified instructor.  As a result, children improve problem-solving skills, emotional awareness and social responsibility, while gaining independence and impulse control. 

“The parents fill out a goal sheet ahead of time so we know exactly what to focus on,” Dwyer says.  “They learn all those range of skills: behavioral, emotional and physical.” 

Dwyer began her own equestrian path at an early age.  “I’m from a nonhorse family but my parents noticed by age four that I was having a hard time focusing on one thing.  They knew I loved animals so they enrolled me in horseback riding lessons.  It became a big motivator.”

That motivation never left her.  In high school, Dwyer discovered she also loved working with children with special needs due to physical or learning struggles.  When it came to choosing a college, it was an easy decision.  Lake Erie College’s School of Equine Studies was founded in 1955, and its reputation for distinguished employment success for its graduates is nationally known.  Dwyer is a PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) International certified therapeutic riding instructor.

 “Being an instructor, I get to facilitate between the horses and the students and it’s incredible to witness the changes and progress in the students,” Dwyer says.  “Safety, of course, is our primary concern, but we let the horses do their jobs.  They are trained for this, and seem to know what’s required of them.  Their demeanor is softer, more disciplined and calmer with the child rider.” 

Thanks to generous donors, Lake Erie College has expanded their Therapeutic Riding Program, and opened their new equestrian Inspiration Arena last August.  The $750,000 building provides a 250'x80' arena for equestrian students to practice.  The new arena will also act as a warm-up space for community members when Lake Erie hosts competitions. 

The school is currently looking for volunteers for the summer program.  Volunteers assist in a number of tasks, including grooming, accompanying riders alongside their horses, as well as leading the horses during the riding sessions.  Prior horse experience is helpful but not necessary.  There is a minimum of two, 1½ hour orientation and training sessions prior to volunteering. 

“It’s always joyful to watch students and volunteers work with our community participants and the horses,” Dwyer says,  “It’s truly a wonderful service, and honor, to provide these benefits for children with disabilities.”

She adds that the careful early planning and execution of the school's COVID policies have allowed them to avoid the semester-long shutdowns which have plagued other schools.  She encourages those interested to see their website for detailed information, and see the sign-up link for potential participants and volunteers. 

For registration or volunteer information, visit them online at or call them at (440) 375-7050.