Keagen Dyson’s dream is to one day become a cowboy.

And while the 6-year-old from Stillwater has cerebral palsy, that hasn’t stopped him from saddling up once a week and going for a horseback ride.

Every Wednesday, Keagen visits a 38-acre horse ranch in Afton, where he hops on Newman, a 10-year-old Appaloosa named after Paul Newman, the late Hollywood movie star. It’s all part of therapeutic horseback riding lessons offered by the nonprofit River Valley Riders, one of several organizations in Minnesota that provide the lessons to people with special needs.

“I didn’t think it was going to make such a big difference,” said Keagen’s mother, Sarah, who added that the sessions have not only improved her son’s attitude, but also helped him gain muscle strength and independence.

Therapeutic riding and hippotherapy — when both an instructor and therapist are involved — provide a range of physical and cognitive benefits for adults and children who have conditions such as autism, Down syndrome, spina bifida or impairing injuries.

Cheryl Holt, one of the organization’s longtime instructors, said some of the riders who take lessons are wheelchair users who are unable to use their lower body muscles.

“When you put a person on a horse that’s coming from a wheelchair, it actually helps to strengthen their spine and pelvic muscles and also improve their posture and balance,” she said.

A horse’s gait is similar to the act of walking, she said, and when a person rides a horse, the movement is transferred to the rider and helps strengthen spine and pelvic muscles. The horses also maneuver through cones and over poles to initiate other types of movement.

“We make it a fun thing, but a lot of important physical work is going on,” Holt said.

Holt said the 45-minute lessons also incorporate educational activities to help with hand and eye coordination as well as communication skills. Most important, she said, the rider is able to take the reins and act independently.

“It helps our riders build self-confidence,” she said. “It helps them solve challenges and be more independent. They’re sitting up on that horse, they’re above everyone else now instead of looking up from a wheelchair.”

Therapy for all ages

Holt helped start the organization in 1999. Before that she worked with Courage Kenny Riders, but decided to start her own organization with expanded services and more lessons.

She said she wanted to create a program for people of all ages and disabilities, including military veterans and people with physical limitations.

Sue Klein, 49, of Vadnais Heights, has been in the program for five years. Twenty years ago she broke her neck in a car accident that left her paralyzed. Klein said that since participating in the Riders’ group, she’s noticed a huge difference in her core strength and now can even stand.

“I wish I knew about it earlier,” she said, adding that she enjoys being around the horses.

The Riders’ group has 24 horses, three of which it owns. The rest are provided by volunteers.

Two horses — Lyric and Newman, who has a smooth, slow walk — belong to Sandy Ward, one of the volunteers. Ward said the organization considers a horse’s size and temperament before deciding to use it.

“Safety is always a huge concern because these are vulnerable people,” she said, adding that there are several safety protocols in place, including emergency dismounts.

Besides River Valley Riders, the We Can Ride organization, with locations in Minnetonka and Marine on St. Croix, also provides horseback riding lessons in the St. Croix River Valley to people with disabilities.

Mary Mitten, the organization’s executive director, said the group welcomes adults and children and offers a therapeutic program, a hippotherapy program and an equine-facilitated learning program. The latter offers educational activities in grooming, leading and horse behavior, Mitten said.

“There’ve been studies that show that cognitive skills and problem-solving skills, that they’re retained better in the mind when you do [physical exercise],” she said. “They … can work on math skills even or talk about geography. All of those great subjects that might be a little more exciting when you involve a horse.”

River Valley Riders offers summer lessons in Afton, Scandia and Farmington every Tuesday through Thursday. The fee to ride is $20 a night or $170 for the summer session. We Can Ride has classes in Marine on St. Croix every Wednesday and in Minnetonka every day but Friday.


Blair Emerson is a Twin Cities freelance writer. Her e-mail address is