With this week’s completion of an indoor arena at Riding to the Top Therapeutic Riding Center in Windham, what was just a dream a few years ago is now a reality to those associated with the non-profit organization.

The riding facility, a Windham jewel since 1998 when it opened on 50 acres horse riding facility off Land of Nod Road, is an integral part of many lives that have been affected by one illness or another. Officials say those with mental, physical and social disabilities can gain strength and confidence by regular training sessions with the docile horses at the center.

Because consistent training is most beneficial to those coping with ailments, officials at the riding center are enthused by the advent of year-round operations made possible by the construction of an arena.

“What the arena does for us is that it allows us to provide continuity of service for our clients, volunteers, the horses, and it will help give us financial stability since we’ll be open year-round in any weather condition,” said Tory Dietel Hopps, fund-raising campaign director.

Hopps and Executive Director Sarah Bronson, a trained physical therapist, say that while phase one of the arena has been completed, there is much to do at Riding to the Top. While the structure is complete, the organization still has to raise money to pay off a construction loan that helped build the facility. Plus, the center plans to build a viewing room and offices attached to the arena and still needs to raise money for that project as well.

“This is only phase one for us. We still have a long ways to go,” Bronson said. “We have to keep raising money for paying for phase one as well as phase two which hasn’t been built yet. That section will provide critical support space for our clients, their families and our support staff and volunteers.”

Last week, Riding to the Top received a helping hand from Rural Development, part of United States Department of Agriculture. Rural Development has designated $520,800 for a guaranteed loan to Riding to the Top which will act as a back-up should the organization default on the loan it has received from Norway Savings Bank.

“It’s a safety net,” Bronson said. “Basically it makes it more palatable to a lending institution to provide the money because they know it’s guaranteed.”

So far, Riding to the Top has raised $740,000 from individuals, foundations, and local companies, but it still has over $600,000 left to raise.

“We are always campaigning,” Hopps said. “We raised over $15,000 this past weekend in a very successful live and silent auction that the Falmouth Lions Club held for us.”

Once mud season is over, the new arena will be on display during a “community celebration” May 22. As part of the festivities that day, refreshments, demonstrations, tours, and family entertainment will be provided.

“This is huge for us,” Bronson said. “No longer will we be battling with the weather, which in the summer months can postpone about 15 percent of our sessions. It either rains, thunders, is too hot or too cold. There are endless variables that can impact our riders. Now those variables won’t be an issue.”

The new 78-foot-by-160-foot arena is a metal building with large overhead heating units that will provide 45-degree warmth on cold winter days, an optimum riding temperature Bronson says. In summer months, the arena has vents on the roof for rising hot air.

Bronson said several local companies have been key in donating labor and/or materials to the building project. Among those are Hancock Lumber, Eastern Electrical Corp., Portland Air Conditioning, AP Concrete Floors, Sebago Technics, Dean & Allyn Inc. (fire suppression) and White Brothers Inc.

“The businesses have been great. It’s been a nice trickle down effect. More businesses were willing to donate once they saw other businesses coming on board. White Brothers especially has been great to us. We are very appreciative,” Bronson said.

But the new arena doesn’t mean the horse riders will always train indoors.

“We will still ride outside when the weather permits, but when it’s thundering and lightning, we’ll have the ability to come indoors rather than cancel classes. And that will make everyone happier and healthier, which is really our primary goal,” Bronson said.

Executive Director Sarah Bronson, Campaign Director Tory Dietel Hopps and Special Events Coordinator Paulette Shepard stand with two of Riding to the Top

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