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Spotlight on the volunteers of Centenary’s University’s equine-assisted services program for children and adults with disabilities

HACKETTSTOWN, NJ (Warren County) — Emily King first decided to volunteer with Therapeutic Riding At Centenary (TRAC) three years ago after enrolling at Centenary University. That chance decision turned out to be pivotal for her career journey.

Now, as she prepares to enter her senior year this fall, King hopes to someday open her own therapeutic riding barn and is also considering attending veterinary school.

“I started volunteering with TRAC because I really wanted to work with horses,” said King, a Martinsville, NJ, resident majoring in animal health with a minor in equine-assisted services. “Through TRAC, I realized that I love working with and helping other people. My goal is to go into therapeutic riding and teach lessons.”

TRAC is an accredited adaptive riding program that provides equine-assisted services to individuals with disabilities. Participants benefit from equestrian experiences that can result in physical, social-emotional, and cognitive benefits, while enhancing goals such as balance, strength, and sensory integration. Through TRAC’s veterans programming, the University also offers therapeutic riding to military veterans and their family members. Centenary University is a higher education member of PATH Intl., which leads the advancement of professional equine-assisted services to support more than 53,000 special needs individuals, including nearly 6,000 veterans.

Karen Brittle, assistant professor of equine studies and director of TRAC, said the program has approximately 75 volunteers annually. While TRAC currently has 22 registered riders, the program serves more than double that number of participants each year through summer camps and daylong outings for youth groups, veterans, and seniors. “Equine-assisted services programs like TRAC need a lot of personnel to function,” Brittle explained. “The cost to pay for this level of staffing would be prohibitive, so an abundance of volunteers is an essential part of our mission. In addition, many of our volunteers are also working to become certified therapeutic riding instructors.”

Centenary University offers a therapeutic riding instructor training program, an eight-credit course sequence that allows both matriculated and non-degree students to fulfill all hands-on requirements for PATH’s certified therapeutic riding instructor (CTRI) application and prepare for the certification exam. The University’s Equine Studies Department also has a minor and a concentration in equine-assisted services to prepare graduates to provide therapeutic riding services to children and adults. The concentration also cultivates the leadership skills necessary for graduates to step into administrative roles in the largely nonprofit field.

King plans to attend graduate school and also earn a CTRI in preparation for a career in the field. Like King, fellow TRAC volunteer Kassandra Guerard of Succasunna plans to someday open her own therapeutic riding barn. The first-year equine studies major is pursuing a concentration in equine-assisted services at Centenary. She first began volunteering in the field nearly three years ago at another barn. “A few years ago, I wanted to ride, and happened to choose a barn that also offered therapeutic riding,” Guerard said. “What inspires me to volunteer is the fact that the children I work with never give up. They always ask for advice and just don’t quit, no matter how difficult things get.”

While many TRAC volunteers are Centenary students, Brittle also relies on a core group of Hackettstown-area residents who contribute their time to the program. TRAC especially needs volunteers during the summer, when many Centenary students return home. Andrea Cicchino of Long Valley is a retired teacher who has been a therapeutic riding volunteer for seven years. Certified in K-12 special education, she spends at least three days a week at the Centenary University Equestrian Center, and is also on call when the program is short-handed. She works with both children and adults, including a group of female veterans who visit the barn twice a year through a program called Operation Sisterhood.

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve had three passions: horses, children, and helping others,” Cicchino said. “The healing power of the horse is incredible and the disabilities participants face as they ride just disappear. Seeing the connection between the horse and rider is such a win-win. TRAC is the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time—it’s opened up so many opportunities that I never would have imagined.”

Jay Edwards

Born and raised in Northwest NJ, Jay has a degree in Communications and has had a life-long interest in local radio and various styles of music. Jay has held numerous jobs over the years such as stunt car driver, bartender, voice-over artist, traffic reporter (award winning), NY Yankee maintenance crewmember and peanut farm worker. His hobbies include mountain climbing, snowmobiling, cooking, performing stand-up comedy and he is an avid squirrel watcher. Jay has been a guest on America’s Morning Headquarters,program on The Weather Channel, and was interviewed by Sam Champion.

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