ELLENSBURG, Washington — Over in the corner of the indoor riding facility is a small wheelchair. It almost goes unnoticed in the large, magnificent facility out on Sorenson Road in the Badger Pocket.
It might look insignificant if it weren’t tied into the hopes and dreams of two young Morgan Middle School students. When conjoined twins Rachel and Lorelai Carlson first started coming the Spirit Therapeutic Riding Center as 3 year olds, they needed that wheelchair to get around.
Now, as 13 year olds, they are walking and riding horses at the Spirit TRC and participating in the programs that have made a significant difference in a world that blends the spirit of animal and people. The chair is used for training purposes, just not theirs anymore.
“They are so smart,” their mother Erika Carlson said. “Coming here helps improve their strength and stamina. They truly, truly love being around the horses.
“Before the COVID-19 they were riding and that was pretty special. They went from needing total and complete support in mounting and dismounting to being able to dismount all by themselves without any help at all. It’s been an amazing journey.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE
Spirit TRC is just now getting back into in-person training and the Carlson sisters spent Wednesday’s session walking and grooming the mini horses. Reconnecting, maybe reintroducing their spirit to the spirit of the two minis that thrived on the attention.
“I really like coming here. I like grooming the horses and walking them,” Rachel said. “We’ve been doing this quite a few years, actually. As long as we can remember.”
“We just come in and enjoy our time here,” Lorelai said. “We had to go a long time where we couldn’t come (because of the health restrictions), so it’s nice to be back.”
LUKE WOULD APPROVE
The 25th annual Luke Mezich Memorial Team Roping & Barrel Race has been an annual fundraiser for Spirit TRC for the past four years. The money raised goes to a riding scholarship to financially assist riders to participate in the program.
“Doing something to benefit others and passing something forward in the name of our son means the world to us. Luke is with us every day and he’s the inspiration to this event,” Steve Mezich said before the 25th annual event. “We have a ton of sponsors in the Pacific Northwest and we’re just very, very lucky. I think he would approve.”
This year the Carlson twins had a chance to share their thanks with the team roping and barrel race audience at the Ellensburg Rodeo Arena over Father’s Day Weekend.
“It was fun,” Rachel said.
“We just wanted to let everybody know how much appreciate their support,” said Lorelai.
Students at Spirit TRC range in age from 3 to 62. They come for many different reasons. But what they share are amazing stories about how their connections with the horses have impacted their lives, said executive director Evelyn Pederson, who started as a volunteer.
For individuals with mental or emotional disabilities, she said, the unique relationship between rider and horse can lead to increased confidence, patience and self-esteem.
“It’s amazing to see how they have grown in confidence and self-esteem,” Erika said. “I really believe there are some animals that are more gentle and in tuned to people with special needs. I’ve seen it, so this has been good for the entire family.”
Wednesday’s afternoon session was a nice way to beat the heat in the indoor facility. A nice cool breeze circulated through the open doors as the Carlson girls walked their horses. Rachel and Lorelai worked with the minis, while their sister Katrina worked with her regular full-sized horse called Dub.
“I like talking care of the horses and being around them,” Katrina Carlson said. “It’s important part of my day to come here. It makes me happy. The horse knows me and it kisses me all the time.”
As Katrina sat on the arena floor in her wheelchair, she would rest her head against Dub as he moved closer with that connecting bond between two friends. She was able to get out of the chair and ride prior to the pandemic, but Wednesday’s lesson consisted of leading the horse and grooming.
“We focus on their capabilities and what they can do. With Katrina and others in a wheelchair, they can trade their wheels for reigns,” Pederson said with a smile. “When they are able to do that, oh my gosh. My heart just soars.
“Katrina, Rachel and Lorelai started 10 years ago, and they’ve been riding every Wednesday ever since. The twins came here in a wheelchair when they were 3 and now, they’re walking.”
DREAMS COME TRUE
Spirit TRC is a place where dreams come true, where they look at what someone can do and not what they cannot. It’s a place where the human spirit bonds with the animal spirit to accomplish great things, and it couldn’t happen without the numerous volunteers, who join in on the journey.
Pederson and office manager Stacy Meyer both started as volunteers. Christianne Sinclair is the volunteer coordinator and Jill Ungar volunteers her time as well.
“My love of horses brought me here at first,” Ungar said. “But as I see the kids work with the animals, I believe the horses have an understanding for people with special needs. They seem to understand the needs of these girls.
“Every time I come here, I see the girls gaining in confidence and self-esteem. It gives them a sense (of) belonging they might get other places.”
It is a part of the healing process and a place they can come to be a part of something bigger, Sinclair said.
“At first I came here to be around horses, but that quickly changed into wanting to be a part of what this experience was doing for the participants,” she said. “Seeing the huge gifts, the horses give to these people is amazing.
“The twins have been coming here since they were little, and I’ve seen the building of confidence and self-esteem. When Katrina first came here, she would back off when the horse came close.
“But now she’s leaning forward. They have a very strong bond. This is a healing process, but I think the participants get to learn that. If someone has anxiety or low self-esteem, working with the horse really helps with their confidence. That horse doesn’t care what’s going on in your life, they just want to be a part of it.”
LIFE IS BETTER IN THE SADDLE
As the world moves closer to pre-pandemic life and the people of the Kittitas Valley get back to normal, there is a place where man and beast are making a difference in each other’s lives.
Let’s face it, folks around here have known for a long, long time that life in the saddle is good for the soul.