words // Holly Johnson
photos // Craig Thomas
It was the epitome of serendipity. There was a barn with an indoor, heated riding ring that was quiet and unused. There were two friends and a conversation about a grandchild with Down syndrome who had participated and thrived in an equine program in Rhode Island until its funding was cut off. Then a light bulb that went off – why not start an equine program in this unused, perfect place in Shelburne, Vt.? And so began Wind Ridge Fjords and Friends.
Research into the best horse for a program helping children with physical and mental challenges kept bringing Fjord ponies to the forefront. Fjords, originally from Norway, have been bred to be calm and docile, developing quite a name for themselves in their ability to help students with disabilities. The Fjords are strong enough for heavy work yet light and agile enough to be a good riding horse. They are also surefooted, and their generally mild temperament and small size make them suitable for children and beginners.
Recently, Fjords and Friends came to the rescue of a miniature donkey named Charley. He is now a peaceful friend of the non-profit, along with Lucy the yellow lab, StellaLuna the English bulldog, Curtis the French bulldog, and Tigger and Lisa the house cats.
The mission Fjords and Friends is to enhance the quality of life of youth by empowering them in their efforts to reach their unique potential through equine, barn, and friends interactions in a warm, safe, compassionate environment. The purpose of the non-profit is to use a total equine experience as a means to provide skills that will promote an individual’s empowerment through emotional and developmental growth.
The barn is run with help from UVM students, and word of mouth brings an array of interested volunteers and brainstormers. Hannah Doesschate, a Champlain College student, heard about Fjords and Friends and decided to present her senior Capstone project on the development of a 12-week program for kids. Hannah, as well as other interested Champlain and University of Vermont students, meet once a week for dinner at Wind Ridge to strategize and design the program.
Tristan Petrosino and his mom Heidi Smith have been coming to the barn once a week for over a year. Tristan was diagnosed with autism in 2010 on the same day his father was diagnosed with ALS. Tristan’s parents wanted to get him involved in a program that would encourage physical development and build confidence. The first day at the barn, Tristan refused to get out of the car or acknowledge anyone. He now looks forward to his weekly visit. Tristan participates in the dinner discussions and shares his adventures at Fjords and Friends with his family and classmates. He will run out in the field and bring one of the ponies back to the barn to groom and ride. He rides bareback, scampers with the dogs, hugs everyone hello and goodbye, and all who know him (including his school teachers) are amazed by his transformation.
Fjords and Friends is a registered Vermont non-profit and its application as a 501C is pending. In order to raise funds, the organization offers Fjord pony lessons at $45 an hour to offset the cost of the animals’ care. Please visit the website, www.windridgefjordsfriends.com, or contact 802-985-3715 for further information.
Fjords have developed a type of movement that works well for students that need to make improvements in gross motor skills and core muscle strength. Much of this is due to the rough terrain the breed was originally bred to work on. This range of movement creates a steady gait with a lot of three-dimensional movement, which mimics the natural human gait. Fjords are very people-orientated and seek out human attention. They are charming and intelligent, kind and gentle but also very hardy and willing to work. They tend to think a bit before reacting to stimuli. They are known to be very smart and tractable, cooperative, dependable, and calm. These are all key ingredients for a successful therapy horse.
Charley, the miniature donkey, came to Fjords and Friends in April. He was never treated by a veterinarian and was living on compost garbage. He was worm-filled and physically depleted. His buddy had passed during the winter, and he was depressed and sickly. Charley is being slowly nurtured back to health by the Fjords and Friends staff, as well as being overseen by a vet. Because of Charley, Fjords and Friends has decided that in addition to its initial mission, it will also become a foster home for barn animals in immediate, desperate need.