February 26, 2010

Therapeutic riding winner

EMMA BOUTHILLETTE

— By

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Staff Writer

WINDHAM -- When Nancy Hohmann retired from her teaching career in 2006, she knew she wanted to be a therapeutic riding instructor. What she didn't anticipate was receiving the National Instructor of the Year award from NARHA, the accrediting body of therapeutic riding centers in North America, three years later.

''I was totally overwhelmed, humbled and honored,'' Hohmann said.

In August, Hohmann received a letter in the mail notifying her that she received the Regional Instructor of the Year award -- she thought it was a mistake. She said the letter indicated she was nominated by someone from another riding center, who she ''knew of.''

''I thought, this couldn't be right because she doesn't really know me,'' but a call to NARHA confirmed the award, Hohmann said.

So, when she received a late night phone call from a colleague who attended the national conference earlier this month, she said it was hard to believe she was selected as the national recipient out of the 11 regional winners.

''I said, 'No, that couldn't be possibly true,' and started crying,'' Hohmann said. ''I love this work and feel so privileged to do it. In retirement, I wanted to give back, so knowing I'm doing a good job at that, that makes me feel good.''

Since Hohmann's decision to become a certified therapeutic riding instructor, she has been working with riders from age 5 to 80 years old at Riding to the Top Therapeutic Riding Center. She teaches them how to groom, lead and ride a horse based on their physical abilities and incorporates a theme in every lesson. Recently, she set up traffic cones in the shape of a candy cane, and on horseback, the riders had to follow the pattern and use a shepherd's crook to pick up a sheep figurine and then place the sheep on a Christmas tree.

''They're playing a game and don't realize what they're learning as they do it,'' Hohmann said, as her riders learned how to manage their fine motor skills as well as steer their horse and manage the various tasks at hand.

As varied as their ages, Hohmann's riders also face a range of physical or mental disabilities. She said some of her students have autism, epilepsy, Down's syndrome, multiple sclerosis or struggle with emotional issues. For each of them, the horses help.

One of Hohmann's riders has a duplication of a certain chromosome that manifests itself as autism and epilepsy. She said this rider was not particularly vocal, and when she did speak, she only repeated what Hohmann said to her.

''One day after I'd worked with her for nine months, she said 'Have fun on horse.' All of us just started crying because it was a miracle. She had never volunteered any speech before. ... It was a wonderful moment,'' Hohmann said.

Sunshine Young began riding after suffering trauma and recovery in Santa Fe, N.M. She has since progressed from not being able to buckle her own belt to completely tacking her horse. She said Hohmann's patience and persistence is very helpful.

''She's a born teacher. ... She has an intuitive way of knowing what's needed,'' Young said of the year Hohmann has spent in helping her overcome emotional barriers and finally be able to place a halter on a horse.

Sayre English, volunteer coordinator for Riding to the Top, said Hohmann is the first from the center to receive such an honor. She said Hohmann puts in the extra effort to connect with volunteer staff, as well as her riders.

''Each lesson, if there's one horse, has up to three volunteers. It's a big team effort and Nancy makes sure the volunteers are trained correctly and know the goals of each lesson,'' English said. ''She's completely prepared with a lesson or game that brings out a side of the rider you never thought existed.''

Staff Writer Emma Bouthillette can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ebouthillette@pressherald.com

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