´╗┐Brady Riding Program uses horses to better youths' lives

by Ed Moy

On Saturday mornings at Bercut Field in Golden Gate Park, participants in the James S. Brady Therapeutic Riding Program for children with special needs gather to receive riding lessons, while learning and developing friendships with the horses, group leaders and other riders.

Under the direction of certified personnel insured by the Equine Associated Growth and Learning Association along with many volunteers, the James S. Brady Therapeutic Riding Program has helped more than 200 mentally or physically challenged children, according to Horses in California, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to uniting the city of San Francisco through horses and horse-related events.

The student riders participating in the program suffer from autism, cerebral palsy, muscle weakness, sight and hearing impairment, learning disabilities, or other social disorders. Each student participates in a specially designed program that is individually suited to his or her needs.

According to Executive Director Sarah Meakin, the program was founded in the '80s by her mother and father, Hugh and Melba Meakin. They had met with James S. Brady, the former press secretary for President Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 was shot in the head and later used horseback riding as a means of physical therapy during his recovery. The Meakin's were given the honor of naming the program after Brady.

Having grown up being a part of and working with the program, Sarah Meakin took over as executive director about eight years ago, having been groomed for the position since her early-teens when she got to meet and learn from numerous experts in the field of equine therapy.

"There's an old saying, 'Gifts make room with themselves,' said Meakin, who was born and raised in San Francisco. "That's what this program has been in my life - it's been a gift. It's made room for itself in my life and I've been incredibly thankful for it. I get to be a part of miracles every time I'm out there."

Designed to help disabled and disadvantaged youths in the Bay Area by offering horsemanship and horseback riding lessons as a physical or social therapy alternative, Meakin said the "Brady Program" has recently expanded to include developing a chapter for war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as at-risk youth from various parts of the City.

"To be a part of something that crosses all lines with love and healing is just magic," Meakin said of the program's diversity. "Every demographic is represented in our program."

After a recent riding session with an autistic boy, Bennett, who'd been with the program for a couple years, Meakin recalled having a truly authentic heart-opening breakthrough moment.

"After his session this last Saturday, I gave him a hug, which we'd been working on, and I said to him 'I love you, Bennett.' Right off the bat, he came back with 'I love you, too, Sarah' and that right there was victory. It was a miracle," said Meakin, who points out that for many autistic children expressing such emotions and opening up to others can be a difficult process.

According to Helen Vydra Roy from the San Francisco National Charity League (SFNCL), who helps coordinate mother and daughter volunteers for the Brady Program, on any given Saturday SFNCL provides upwards of nine volunteers that fully participate in the program while helping to get the horses prepared for riding, acting as side walkers, leading the horses for children with special needs, as well as assisting and interacting with program leaders.

"It's been a great opportunity for my kids because they can get this first-hand experience of what it's like to work with children with special needs and to see how helpful the riding program is to those kids," said Vydra Roy, who along with her two daughters have been volunteering with the program for the past year.

The Brady Program has also received a certificate of recognition from the California Assembly and Award of Honor from the City and County of San Francisco.

As a non-profit organization, the Brady Program relies solely on donations to fund its activities. According to Meakin, the organization holds several fundraising events during the year, which are open to the general public.

For more information about the James S. Brady Therapeutic Riding Program, visit the website at www.horsesinca.com or call (415) 221-9438.