Every Saturday, without fail, the family arrives and parks the van between the barn and riding arena to get as close as possible. When the van door opens, lifted out of the seat and into a wheelchair is 14-year-old Mariah Rook who is wheeled up the ramp onto a wooden platform. And, that is when a big smile inevitably appears on Mariah’s face at the sight of Fancy waiting for her in the ring.
Fancy is a 20-year-old Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse cross and a veteran show horse who stands complacent in the ring with a team around her carrying children like Mariah safely on her back.
Take the Reins Therapeutic Riding Center sits on 12 bucolic acres in Thompson’s Station with a barn, covered riding arena and 11 therapy animals which include horses, ponies, miniature horses and burros. It was on a spiritual path that the founders of the nonprofit, Jerry and Sharon Clement, saw their vision come to life of bringing horses and children together. Since 2011, dozens of children and their families have experienced joy, accomplishments and life changing moments at Take the Reins.
Mariah’s family watches for the next hour as she enjoys her favorite activity of the week. Her sister Jordan, 15, is leading Fancy and will have her turn to ride afterwards.
Mariah was born premature and with Cerebral Palsy. At 10 days old, her parents felt unable to care for her and handed her over to Mariah’s great-grandmother. Through the committed efforts of her extended family, they have seen her grow and shine despite her disability, one that left her a quadriplegic with only minimal use of one arm.
Her grandfather, Greg Edwards, explains, “Her riding continues to improve, but the biggest thing is her confidence. She used to be scared to death of animals. Then she got introduced to Kiddy Up Ranch in Florida and started riding a Belgian horse (a large, draft breed) named Rosie. She did extremely well riding her.”
Mariah’s speech is slurred, but her thoughts lucid like any girl her age. “This is my fourth year riding. I rode a Belgian in Florida and in competition I got a first and a second place,” she said.
She proudly earned a spot at the Special Olympics.
Aside from the enjoyment, therapeutic riding proves physical benefits. “With riding, her eye and hand coordination has improved, and it helps with her back strength,” said Greg.
Mounting Mariah on Fancy is a carefully orchestrated task. Requiring a team of people, it takes several minutes to adjust her correctly on the horse. Jordan stands at Fancy’s head holding the lead rope. Any horse would step forward with this heavy shifting of weight. Yet, with her eye on what’s around her, Fancy doesn’t move a foot.
The instructor has her doing circles, weaving through cones and trotting across the arena. Sidewalkers follow alongside using an “arm-over-the-thigh” hold. When instructed, Mariah pulls back the reins and belts out a “Whoa!”
She’s got this.
It’s not uncommon to see the group stop during the lesson to straighten her in the saddle, adjust her feet in the stirrups, tip her helmet back, push her brown curly hair out of her eyes. Mariah laughs and loves every minute.
This is one of many stories that transpire at centers like Take the Reins, a PATH, Int’l (Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship) certified center serving forty children every week that exhibit a wide range of disabilities. Siblings are invited to ride, too. Keeping the program alive depends on private donations, grants, dedicated volunteers and exceptional animals.
“The horses all have different personalities and backgrounds. When you put a child on them, something happens, the horse just settles in. But, it’s hard on the horses, you don’t want to overdue it with them,” said Sharon.
The Clements feel blessed to have made it this far.“It was tough the first few years. We’ve gotten a lot of support from our church family and other people because they believe in it,”said Jerry.
It’s easy to believe when miracles happen.
“It helps their confidence. We’ve seen girls just blossom that have been through horrible things,” says Sharon.
Jerry added, “We had a child say their firstwords in eight years; the mother was shocked.”
In addition to riding, they offer an EAL (Equine Assisted Learning) program. Lead by PATH instructor Susan Lutz, children engage in activities on the ground with horses that help teach life skills like respect, forgiveness and team work.
“It’s been a real amazing venture, to see that it’s a much bigger picture,”said Sharon.
In the case of Mariah and Jordan, they are full sisters, but circumstances left the two living apart for several years. Now together, their bond grows with a family by their side, and every Saturday morning over the love of a horse.
“I don’t think there is anything the horse can’t fix,” said Sharon.
Connecting children and their families with horses through the love of Christ is a mission that drives Jerry and Sharon Clement every day, and for good reason.
Because, “For one to fly, one only needs to . . . take the reins.”
To learn more about Take the Reins visit,