SPARTANBURG - The horses of HALTER and the children they serve through the center's therapeutic riding sessions have been keeping in touch through a surprising mutual love of reading.
Staff from the therapeutic riding center, which serves the SC School for the Deaf and the Blind, McCarthy Teszler School and Spartanburg Regional Pediatric Rehabilitation as well as individual children under the age of 21 with special needs from the Spartanburg area, have been holding weekly virtual storytimes filmed in the horses' pastures for their young riders.
"I saw it on a different therapeutic center's page and thought it would be a great idea," said Volunteer Coordinator Bethany Baxley of how the storytimes got started. "We try to keep them short just because social media is not apt for long videos."
When Nancy Paschall, executive director at HALTER, begins reading, the horses gather around. Many times, the horses will stick their noses in the book or react to different parts of the story, just like a child would.
"They're fascinated by (the books), they really are," Paschall said. "You'll see where you'll be reading to one and then the others will come up."
The storytimes are posted on HALTER's Facebook and Instagram pages on Thursday evenings, and each gets about 150 viewers. Paschall said parents have reached out to say their children have really enjoyed hearing the stories and seeing their horses.
"We did hear a very interesting story that a little guy who rode with us last summer, couldn't ride during the school year, his mom was showing it on the computer and he crawled up in her lap and they watched it four times. He was pointing to the horses," said Paschall.
"His mom said he's not normally that affectionate, affection and social interactions are hard for him, so the fact that he crawled into her lap was really big for her as a mom," Baxley added.
Paschall said the staff has been keeping busy caring for the horses, cleaning the facility, installing a new building and working on a sensory trail, and are gearing up to welcome back some of their riders starting next week. They've also been working with their families online, checking in with them, sharing resources and helping the children maintain their emotional bonds with their horses.
"Everybody goes, 'Oh, you're closed,' and they assume we're not doing anything, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. We're reaching out and talking to our parents," Paschall said. "We've also done FaceTime with some of the kids and their own particular horses."
Unfortunately, Paschall said, a lot of funds have been going out during the shutdown, as the money was already dedicated to specific projects, and very little has been coming in. Social distancing required them to postpone their usual annual fundraiser, the HALTER Derby, rescheduled for June. One of the best ways people can help HALTER right now is by making donations, if they are able, said Paschall.
"We have to pay to feed the horses, we need to buy new hay. They have to get their shoes on and their feet trimmed. They all had their spring shots. Our veterinarians are very good to us, but it takes cash," Paschall said. "Every little bit matters, and we're really good stewards of the money that's donated."
They also need volunteers. Paschall said some of their volunteers are older and may not feel safe coming back right away. While they can't hold volunteer training sessions immediately, people can let Baxley know that they'd like to be in the next one. There are also some volunteer activities that don't require training.
"If you're looking for a project to do as a small group, like three people, we can have you come out as a family and wash fences and pick up trash out of the pastures," Paschall said.
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