Therapy horse-riding at Red-Tar helps local families

By Annie Gentile - ReminderNews
Stafford - posted Tue., Mar. 26, 2013
Red-Tar Spirithorse Therapy Riding Center
Crystal, who has autism, has been taking therapeutic riding sessions at Red-Tar Spirithorse Therapy Riding Center for the past few years. She likes the fact that her favorite horse, Tootsie, once had a broken leg and also came to Red-Tar with a handicap. Photos by Annie Gentile.

Wendy Tariff often says that if she could have one wish, it would be to find a million-dollar benefactor for the Red-Tar SpiritHorse Therapy Riding Center, the non-profit program in Stafford Springs she co-founded with her husband, John Reddicks. Yet though the two may lack material wealth, they have an abundance of riches in the form of dedicated volunteers, happy clients, and their families.
“We had a goal this past year to build an indoor arena,” said Tariff, at their start-of-season organizational meeting March 23. “We couldn’t make it happen, but who knows? Maybe next year,” she said.

At the meeting, volunteers reviewed procedures for caring for the horses at the center and working with clients.

“Last summer was the best summer I ever had,” said Danni Rini, a high school student from Vernon who began volunteering at that time. One of a core group of about a dozen volunteers, she gives of her time caring for the horses and leading or walking along riders during their therapy sessions. “I’ve only been around horses for about three years now, but what I do here makes me think about going into something similar after high school. It’s really a great experience,” she said.

“I consider the most risky part of a lesson to be getting on and off the horse,” said Tariff, explaining that many of the riders are people with disabilities who don’t always have the strength or mobility to mount and dismount a horse easily. She said they also work with at-risk youth through the Department of Children and Families, helping them to develop emotional security and bond with an animal that offers unconditional love. “I feel horses are very wise and attuned to the people they spend time with,” Tariff said.  

Maryann Meade of Mansfield has been bringing her daughter Katie for therapeutic riding at Red-Tar since last fall.  Katie, who is in her early 20s, has cerebral palsy and has been in a wheelchair all her life. She also had spinal fusion surgery 10 years ago and was only recently cleared by her doctor to ride horses again.

As Katie does not have the ability to ride on her own, she has formed a strong friendship not only with her favorite horse, Tory, but also with Reddicks, who sits behind her when she rides. “Riding gives Katie the confidence she didn’t have before,” said Meade. “She has a soft spot for [Reddicks]. Her eyes get all twinkly to be around him, and I know the feeling is mutual,” she said.

Besides her new friendships, however, Katie has also experienced physical benefits from the therapy she receives at Red-Tar.

“The horse’s gait approximates the same movement the human pelvis makes and it helps with patterning for [Katie’s] neurological system,” said Tariff. “A while after Katie started riding with us, her mother found her daughter had started initiating conversation more and she took her to her neurologist. They found the riding was making the spinal fluids move more, giving more stimulation to her brain.”
“Not long after she started riding, Katie said something to me that made me think,” said Meade. “She said, ‘[Riding] is the only time that people actually look up at me.’ Being in a wheelchair all the time, with everyone always looking down to her, it hadn’t occurred to me. I thought it was really profound.”

Twenty-one-year-old Crystal of Stafford Springs has been taking therapeutic riding lessons at Red-Tar for the past two and a half years. She and her mother first learned about Red-Tar when Tariff and Reddicks held a volunteer and informational meeting at Stafford Library about three years ago. Like, Katie, Crystal has a favorite horse of her own – Tootsie - who she loves to feed carrots.

“Tootsie used to work as a therapy horse in Ellington until she broke her leg,” Crystal said, explaining that the horse ended up being confined to a stall for about six months while the leg healed. As a result of the injury, the therapy center could not use her anymore, but when Tariff learned about it, she offered to take her.

“I like that Tootsie has a handicap too, like me,” said Crystal. “I feel like we have something in common and that makes our bond stronger.”

“Crystal has autism and I find her riding helps her to focus more,” said her mother, Kristine, who also volunteers her time wherever she is needed. “After a lesson, my daughter seems more aware and her socialization improves. All the riders have so many different needs, and when I volunteer, I come away with a feeling that I am helping that rider foster independence and feel a sense of accomplishment. It’s really a perfect environment.”

For more information about Red-Tar Spirithorse Therapy Riding Center, find them on Facebook or visit

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