For the first time in 20 years, River Valley Riders didn’t have to cancel its therapeutic horseback riding lessons when rain clouds gathered overhead on a recent evening.

Instead, riders, horses and volunteers gathered in RVR’s new $500,000 indoor arena.

The Afton-area nonprofit called off about a third of its sessions because of rain last year, when lessons were held in the outdoor arena.

“It’s wonderful to be able to now have a consistent program,” said Cheryl Holt, a board member and one of the organization’s founders.

Calling off lessons is not only disappointing for clients, Holt said, but they also miss out on working their muscles and are often stiffer the following week. “That’s really hard on our riders,” she said.

Established as a nonprofit in 2000, River Valley Riders for more than a decade limited its programming to one evening a week at Lake Elmo’s fairgrounds.

Now it offers lessons four days a week, serving about 75 riders and carriage drivers ages 4 and older. It aims to also work with veterans, senior citizens and those with mental illnesses.

“There’s so much therapy with horses that could benefit many, many people,” said Executive Director Joan Berg. “With our own property and own buildings, we really do have the opportunity to expand.”

RVR purchased 38 acres near Afton in 2009 after considering several properties, including some with indoor arenas already onsite. As Berg puts it, those facilities were built for horses and riders but not for those with special needs.

“We decided to build our own rather than making the many, many modifications to get everything accessible,” she said.

The purchase also meant stability for RVR, Berg said. Few equine therapy programs in Minnesota own their facilities, which can mean having to move when a property owner changes plans.

RVR began lessons at the Afton site in 2011 once the outdoor arena, driveway and parking lot were completed. After about three years of fundraising, construction on the indoor arena began and was completed in time for this year’s first lessons this month. The indoor arena will enable RVR to offer lessons for 7 months, a full month longer than in previous years.

RVR is now fundraising to build indoor bathrooms and an enclosed viewing area where parents and caregivers can watch the lessons. Over the next several years, it plans to build stables so therapy horses can be housed onsite rather than being trailered in each evening; that will also require construction of a caretaker cottage so someone can tend to the horses.

Next year, the organization aims to pay its instructors as well as its executive director and CFO, and Berg plans to hand the reins over to Holt.

RVR will need to raise about $3 million in all to complete its building projects and pay the staff, Holt said. “There’s plenty of work to do, but it’s all really exciting,” Berg said.

‘Horses can help people’

Watching the program expand over the last two decades was a testament to the growing understanding of how horses can be used in therapy, Holt said.

“The power of the horse is just incredible,” she said. “It just brings tears to your eyes to think about what they can give.”

She’s seen horses halt moments before their rider goes into a seizure, and has known nonverbal clients who say some of their first words after they started riding.

For clients who use a wheelchair, being atop a horse quite literally offers a new perspective — a break from having to look up to meet someone’s eyes.

Holt hopes to add hippotherapy with physical therapists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists, as well as mental health services and specific programs for those with PTSD and dementia.

For 8-year-old Ellisia Stoeckly, forming a connection with her four-legged therapist Casey has meant she now has something to look forward to each week, even on her toughest days. Ellisia was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD, and has struggled even more in the past year since her father died from cancer.

“Knowing we had this in the spring was the light at the end of the tunnel for both of us,” said her mom, Emily Dee, who had to step down from her job as a certified nursing assistant to care for her daughter. Though new to the program, mother and daughter were both grateful for the indoor arena that ensures their lessons won’t be canceled.

After Ellisia took just two rides, Dee noticed a change in her daughter. She’s calmer, less impulsive. She’s listening and eager to talk about Casey and what she learned in her lesson.

“We’ve tried yoga, karate, gymnastics, so many activities,” Dee said. “But this is it — this is therapy for both of us, really.”

Later, as Ellisia tugged at her boots and the next group of riders began brushing their horses, she pondered the connection between horse and rider.

“I really think horses can help people,” she said. “They understand.”