Friends For Tomorrow exists to serve children and young adults facing pressing physical, emotional, cognitive and/or social life challenges. Ranging from ages 4-19, our riders face such extraordinary trials as: cerebral palsy; Down syndrome; autism; pervasive developmental disorder; sensory integrative disorder; neurological disease; progressive tumors; speech, hearing and vision impairments; anxiety disorders and attention deficit disorders; and many other challenges.
Approximately 30% of our students receive scholarships through our Annie Gorman Ridership Fund based on demonstrated financial need. Our students live in twenty-six greater Boston communities. We intimately understand the many obstacles our riders face while combating these and still other challenges and are absolutely committed to helping them meet and overcome them as best as possible.
Meet some of our inspiring students...
Annika Marie, or Annika as she prefers to be called, had a family connection to therapeutic horseback riding long before her birth. Her great grandmother was an avid equestrian and owned a horse farm in Orange County, NY. As her grandmother aged and became unable to ride, she donated her beloved horses to a therapeutic riding program.
We first met Annika and her parents, Jay and Katrina in the spring of 2015. Annika was a shy 10-year-old struggling to make connections with her peers because of her inability to read nonverbal cues. At a young age, Annika was diagnosed with Stargardt Disease, also known as juvenile macular degeneration. The disease causes progressive damage of the macula, the small area in the center of the retina that is responsible for sharp, straight-ahead vision. As Annika describes it, “I cannot see out of the middle of my eyes, but I can see out of the sides.” After a visit to the farm to meet Lucy and our herd, Annika’s love of horses shined brightly. She and her parents felt that Pony Partners was the right start for Annika to explore her interest in horses. Within a couple of weeks into the program, she found common bonds among her fellow horse-loving classmates and friendships began to form.
The following winter, Annika continued with us and began riding in our Therapeutic Horseback Riding program. In the past where she struggled in large peer group activities, she flourished in the sport of riding with her equine partner. Neither of her parents expected to see how Annika adapted; over time her other senses: hearing, scent and touch begin to dominate where her sight lacked. She could understand what the horses were feeling based on the tone of their snickers. When riding, she relied more on her sense of touch; her legs pushed the horse forward, then her hands directed the horse where to go. She trusted the horse to see where she couldn’t. The vastness of the indoor arena gave her breath and depth to move about in comfort and the voice of her guiding instructor, Allie gave her confidence to stretch outside her comfort zone. Each week her riding skills improved. Even, the smell of hay was a welcomed weekly experience. She would enter the barn, close her eyes, inhale deeply, and welcome in the scent of hay and horses with a smile.
As Annika’s riding has grown, so have her goals. This past spring she announced to her instructor, Allie that she wanted to advance her riding to cantering and jumping. We were thrilled to hear Annika’s riding aspirations, however, that meant she would leave us to join a program that offers advanced instruction. We wish we could keep every student we teach under our “wings” forever, but we realize, with pride, that we have done our work; we have fostered growth, confidence and skills, and we sometimes must let our students move to the next phase of their riding journey. “She has great skills and knowledge on horseback and only needs to be encouraged to believe in herself and her horse. She has worked hard to increase her riding independence and is now trotting off lead around the ring. I am very proud of all of the work she has put in and how she has overcome any challenge that has been presented to her. We will be sad to see her graduate but excited to hear about new riding adventures!”, said Allie.
Connor is an inquisitive and observant 11-year-old. Each week, when he arrives at the barn, he walks the barn isle, glances into every stall and says hello to each horse by name. If anyone is not in their “spot” he notices. He quickly notices his mount for the day, Sparky, on the cross ties, waiting for him. A calmness comes over him, he walks up to Sparky, cups his head in his hands and says hello to his favorite.
Connor began riding at FFT four years ago. He was challenged with a weak left-side and struggled with structure and transition. As a result of a prenatal stroke, his hips were stiff, his core muscles weak and he had an underperforming left hand, “Lefty.” Changes in routine and structure were often a challenge for him. Despite these things, he loved being at the barn and the horses were motivating for him.
Connor had certain goals; to work on his knowledge of the barn, learn to lead his horse, proper form in the saddle at the walk and trot and learning to communicate with the horse with his voice, hands and legs. Lucy, his instructor, constructed a lesson plan that built on his strengths and addressed his weaknesses. They would talk about the importance of building a relationship with his equine partner(s) and what it required to care for them. Arranging a story board (images of each task arranged on a display board) before each lesson helped reduce Connor’s anxiety of knowing what was going to occur and what would be asked of him. Often a trail ride in the woods would soothe any anxiety of the day. For strength building, each side of Connors body was equally used - when playing basketball on horseback, if he shot a basket using his right side, the next shot would be made using “Lefty”. If he navigated a course in the indoor arena steering to the right, he’d be asked to steer to the left.
We’ve seen so much growth in Connor over the past four years. Today, Connor uses “Lefty” with each lesson and is riding off lead at the walk and recently had his first off lead trot! His focus has improved and he is stronger physically in the saddle with better core strength, balance and posture. “His posting trot is coming along beautifully. He understands the importance of posting in the saddle to make the work of his equine partner more comfortable versus before when Connor felt the “horsies” were bouncing him at the trot on purpose to make it more fun for him. And, in doing so, makes him a caring and compassionate rider,” said his instructor Lucy.
Other areas of his athleticism have improved as well, he enjoys snow skiing and water skiing with his family. He is more flexible with transitions at the farm and trying new approaches to riding. His endless curiosity of the barn and horses has not wained over the four years he has been riding with us and has an incredible bond with his equine partner Sparky. Each week when he arrives he says hello to him and greets him with a gentle kiss on the nose. Grandma Gayle is right behind with a bag of carrots or apples for the horses.
The plains thunder with the roar of hooves as Pharaoh Tutmose III leads his army into battle, urging his chariot horse ever faster. In reality our Pharaoh is Nicky, the first student of our new Horse-n-Buddy driving program, and his mighty chariot horse is Skippy, a Very Small Equine (VSE) with a mighty personality. Born Dominic Adiran H. Ruiz, Nicky as he prefers to be called has been riding with Friends For Tomorrow since he was in the second grade. Now 23, a graduate student of International Relations at University of Massachusetts Boston, Nicky admits that he enjoys indulging in “a bit of fantasy,” as he draws from his passion for world history in imagining himself as a powerful pharoh as he drives.
Diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months of age, Nicky quips, “I was a bit floppy,” as a young child. His feet curved inward and he had not yet begun to walk. Nicky would end up having nearly a surgery a year for the first 10 years of his life. In addition to surgeries, physical therapy and check-ups found the Ruiz family at Children’s Hospital nearly every week. Seeking an alternative to the constant cycle of physical therapy, his mother,Vicky, spotted a flier at the hospital for Friends For Tomorrow and gave Founder, Diane Auger a call. Once he had sufficiently recovered from his most recent surgery, Nicky began riding with Friends For Tomorrow (FFT) when he was in the second grade. “I was happy riding instead of being scared when going to the hospital for physical therapy. Riding also made me proud. I could do something other kids could do too. In fact, my friends in school thought it was awesome that I rode horses. It was cool!,” he says with pride.
Nicky considers his shyness one of the great challenges that FFT has helped him to overcome. He carried so much tension in his body, he couldn’t properly lower his legs around the horse he was riding or open up enough to speak with his instructors. “In the beginning, I was scared and reluctant. Diane would have to coax me onto Thumby or Fox or Doc or Snuther and she would get the guys to coax me – like Kris Auger or Jon Drew who volunteered to be my side walkers and make me brave.”
His instructors would lull him into a calm of relaxation and comfort by drawing him out of his shell talking about his favorite subjects. As he relaxed, he found his postured improve and his legs stretched out comfortably to sit astride his mount.
In the fall of 2014, Nicky joined Horse-n-Buddy, Friends For Tomorrow’s therapeutic cart and ground driving program. Driving has given Nicky the opportunity to continue working on his core strength as he learns new ways to communicate with a horse. As he’s gotten to know Skippy, she has risen quickly through the ranks of his affections to become one of his all time favorites along with Dayton and Snuther. “I want to get good enough to give other passengers the chance to ride with me, especially Mrs. Berry!”
Nicky attributes much of his confidence and his ability to walk so well to the therapies he’s received from participating in horseback riding and cart driving. He often finds himself fielding questions about his success from others and is proud to share his accomplishments.
It’s Tuesday. Ole Blue stands patiently awaiting his rider. He doesn’t shift his weight from hoof to hoof, fidget, or nicker with anticipation. His rider is worth waiting for. With 15 minutes until her lesson, Kristen arrives with her mother, Susan. “Hello,” Kristen beams, clutching her tote bag. Her positive energy lights up the room. “OK, time to stretch,” Susan urges, “No cheating. Do it like when you really mount.” Dutifully Kristen places her palms on Ole Blue’s back and swings her right leg over. There’s no need for a volunteer to hold this horse. Ole Blue is the name lovingly given to the big, blue water barrel turned stretching aid that has prepared Friends For Tomorrow (FFT) students to mount real horses for years and faithfully attends to Kristen’s needs every week prior to her lesson. Susan helps her stretch, as mother and daughter steal a precious moment to catch up on the day’s events. Then the tote bag reappears and from its depth emerges Kristen’s personal cheering section. One by one, stuffed animals from her vast collection are carefully chosen for this lesson and are put into position on the windowsill where they can watch her ride. Being judicious, she tries not to show preferential treatment to her favorites. Everyone gets a chance to watch and ride throughout the season; but from the throng, a single stuffed friend is chosen to accompany her during her lesson, tucked safely into the belt of Kristen’s instructor, Lucy. Today’s lucky winner is Theodore, of Chipmunks fame. Kristen dismounts Ole Blue, grasping Lucy’s hand for support as they walk into the barn aisle to greet her mount for the day.
When Kristen was a toddler, she suffered from a seizure disorder. Corrective brain surgery at three years of age eliminated the threat of seizures, but left her with some developmental delays and some physical issues. Doctors recommended therapeutic horseback riding to help with core strength, balance, and walking. A year after her surgery, the family of Kristen’s pre-school friend, Grace, suggested a program called Friends For Tomorrow where their other daughter, Annie, was already a student. Susan had Kristen put on the waiting list as quickly as possible and waited for a spot to open up. FFT was determined to be the perfect match for Kristen. Now a veteran of FFT with eight years of riding under her belt, Susan and Kristen credit the program with contributing to her core strength and balance.
With her lesson underway, Kristen glows with grins interrupted only briefly by a brow furrowed in concentration as she challenges herself. Her favorite horse, Katie, flicks her ears back and forth, listening to Kristen’s commands of “Walk on, Katie,” or Kristen’s favorite, “TROT, Katie!”
For a short time, Kristen seemed to lose interest in riding. Begging off from her lessons, or suggesting that she was done with it as an after-school activity, Kristen’s attitude worried her family.
She finally revealed that she didn’t feel connected to one of the ponies and worried that he would be chosen for her lesson. A very adaptable program, FFT used that information to ensure that Kristen would be matched with horses that she felt worked well with her. With Katie as her partner, her sunny attitude re-appeared, eliminating any talk of missing a lesson, and Tuesdays are once again her favorite day of the week because she gets to ride. While Kristen knows that she can’t ride Katie every lesson, as other students would also like an opportunity to ride her, she chalks this up to helping her learn to share... a lesson as valuable as the physical strength she has increased during her time with the horses.
With a flip of her hair, Ana asks “So, if I am in the newsletter, will I get to have paparazzi follow me around taking my pictures? And, more importantly, will I be famous?” I introduce you to Ana, a precocious 11-year-old, who wants to share with you her experience at FFT (and be famous). Ana loves to make people laugh and is quite the social butterfly. Her mom describes her as “smart, sassy and sensitive” and she definitely marches to the beat of her own wonderful drum.
Although you would never guess it from the spring in her step while she is at the barn, Ana deals with anxiety and impulsivity. She has also been diagnosed with receptive and expressive language-based learning difficulties and sensory integration issues. Her executive functioning is impaired so it is difficult for her to stay on task, prioritize and organize. Yet, when Ana is at FFT she is only seen for her charm, humor, quick wit, and kindness. Ana has been brightening the barn weekly with her smile for over a year now, and we hope for many more to come.
Ana’s mom, Janice, heard about FFT from their doctor who suggested our program to address Ana’s sensory integration issues as well as to develop her social skills. Ana’s favorite animals are frogs and horses, so it seemed like a great fit, despite Ana being allergic to horses. With the help of antihistamines, Ana started in our Pony Partners program in the fall of 2015 and has been riding ever since. In Pony Partners, she says she learned to understand what horses were saying with their bodies and even made some lasting friends in the group. Ana was very excited to share a tidbit of her knowledge, saying: “When a horse is mad, it puts its ears way back, but I haven’t ever seen that because the horses at FFT are always happy!”
When asked why Ana likes horses, she said that she likes that they are furry and also likes the funny noises they make when they eat. Ana reports that she likes the thrill of riding and that she generally likes to do things that scare other people, like going on roller coasters or going on adventures. While Ana is enjoying the thrill and fun of riding, she is also working on her core muscles, improving her vestibular sensory integration (balancing, understanding where she is in the space of her surroundings) as well as her proprioceptive sensory integration (how much force she uses to stay on the horse and to direct it). She says that trotting in particular helps with her balance.
Ana’s time at the farm is spent learning how to care for living creatures and how to treat them with kindness and respect. Her work with her instructor, Allie, helps her practice listening carefully, following directions and teamwork. Ana works hard to communicate well with her horse and makes sure she is being a strong, caring and helpful partner.
Ana is currently learning to post at the trot, which is her favorite thing to do while riding, as she loves all of the motion in the saddle. Ana has now set her sights on the Fall Special Olympics Equestrian Tournament, where her goal for her first year is to compete in the Walk/Trot division. With her determination and playful competitiveness, Ana will be sure to bring home clinking medals for Team FFT, and just may be famous!