Hope and healing
February 15, 2017
Like many students fresh out of high school headed off to college, Robyn Mrnak was unsure which degree to pursue. Fast forward to five years later, 23-year-old Mrnak is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (P.A.T.H.) certified riding instructor and is the director of Hope and Healing Therapeutic Riding Center in Bowman, North Dakota.
She grew up in Bowman on a ranch, riding horses and raising registered Hereford cattle. She knew she wanted to seek a career in agriculture. What that would be, Mrnak wasn't sure. She studied at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, for a year before discovering a therapeutic riding teaching program at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.
"The program struck my interest. I had no background and I hadn't even heard of it," Mrnak said. "Horses have been a huge part of my life; they've helped me get through hard times. I knew I wanted to find a way to share with other people that would be a good thing to do."
Once certified, Mrnak returned home to start a new program, a program that was already in its beginning phases.
"I got a little bit lucky. There were two ladies who helped me get set up, Jackie Freitag and Kristi Blaser.
I was in school and they started talking about setting up a therapeutic riding program," Mrnak said. "The ladies thought it would be a beneficial thing for Bowman. They approached the multi-purpose building, that we rent, which is set up for rodeo and horse events, concerts, and so on. They talked to the board, which my dad was on, about renting. He told them I was in the program. When I returned home, we got together and began the groundwork."
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Hope and Healing Therapeutic Riding is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. In its first year, three eight-week sessions were offered to special needs individuals and troubled youth, one session each in spring, summer, and fall.
"My son Levi is 11 and has Down Syndrome. Of the three sessions, he has ridden in two," said Sara Kordovsky, of Bowman. "He absolutely loves it. It's pure enjoyment, first and foremost; he has an absolutely great time, but he has improved immensely physically."
Mrnak varies the activities she asks of her students to keep them engaged and enjoying their experience. They start each lesson warming up and loosening their muscles, then review what they learned in the last lesson to engage their memory. From there, they begin a new activity, skill, course, or game, teaching such things as fine or gross motor skills, memory, communication, confidence, and teamwork.
"We started small and are trying to work our way up as we go so we don't get too overwhelmed," Mrnak said. "We have volunteers that come and help us lead horses and walk beside clients and get horses ready, but I am the one who teaches and makes lesson plans for each week depending on clients, their needs, and where they're at."
Sara has noticed a difference in Levi's core strength since he started riding horses.
"People with Down Syndrome tend to be a little mushy in the middle, if you will," Sara said. "Levi sits taller in the saddle. I didn't realize they would do so many things to help him balance in the saddle. I thought it was going to be just riding, but they work on his upper body strength and help him be a more stable person physically."
Hope and Healing uses several of Mrnak's horses, one of Frietag's, and another horse on loan. They are always on the lookout for more horses and volunteers.
"They're all wonderful; everybody who is there loves what they're doing," Sara said. "The people they're working with and the horses are excited to be doing that, and we're happy to have it in Bowman. It seems they have a rigorous set of standards for the horses that can be used in the program. They're very gentle and very kind. I have no fear when Levi's on them."
"We're always looking for the types of horses that have a little more age, have done it all, and anyone can get on and go. We also always hope that people around the area need a horse that is ready to retire, but sound enough to do the work we ask it to," Mrnak said. "A horse's walk mimics an adult human walk, so if we have someone with issues with their own gait or are paralyzed, a horse's walk will stimulate those muscles. We need horses to be sound for that reason."
Because Hope and Healing is a non-profit, they welcome donations.
"The community has been great. A couple organizations have been doing fundraisers. We'll take old saddles people don't use or horses, or we're always taking volunteers," Mrnak said. "We do volunteer training before each session. We're also working on a scholarship program for a lot of kids who could use therapeutic riding and can't afford it."
Levi's dad, Adam Kordovsky is grateful for the benefits his son Levi receives from riding at Hope and Healing Therapeutic Riding.
"It's hard for Levi to be in sports and to do a lot of other things kids can do," Adam said. "He can be a part of the team, but he's still limited. Riding is something he can participate in and fully do and he knows that. Riding is really a huge confidence builder to him."