Giving Back: Riding Center puts children back in saddle

Published 11:45 pm Tuesday, December 23, 2014


LAPLACE — For Anita Hefler, the Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center isn’t a way to get rich or even make a living — her organization is a non-profit. But, she says, she receives a different type of payment all the same.

“When someone doesn’t need surgery, or when someone is able to walk when they’ve been told they won’t be able to, that’s how we get paid,” Hefler said.

Hefler and her organization have improved the quality of life for countless people since its inception in 1993 by providing therapy for those with physical, emotional and learning disabilities.

As per the Riding Center website, “for individuals with disabilities, equine-assisted activities have been shown to improve muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, motor development as well as emotional well-being.”

“The three-dimensional movement of the horse is the most similar to the human walking gait,” Hefler said. “It cannot be duplicated anywhere. Horses are known as being very powerful to begin with. That they can do this … it’s just such a unique modality. It’s empowering for kids of all ages.”

Hefler has always had a love of horses, “like any young girl,” she said. Her current journey spawned from that love. In 1990, Hefler visited the American Quarterhorse Association’s World Championship show in Oklahoma City, which opened events by featuring a therapeutic riding group from that area.

“There were totally individual riders and others who needed two (people) next to them and another to lead them,” Hefler said. “I could not get those faces out of my mind.”

So Hefler looked up a program in Franklinton and volunteered there for a year. After taking the time to ensure this was a leap she wanted to take — “I didn’t want to start something like this and just abandon it” — she became a certified riding instructor. Soon thereafter, she began her program in Bridge City with two horses and three riders, then moved to St. Rose after a year.

“We were literally moving every year for the first five years,” Hefler said.

In 1998, she moved the riding center for good to LaPlace — “Our stable home,” she quipped — and has been helping people locally and beyond since.

Hefler said one of the most impactful things to shape her vision early on dealt with one rider, named Ashley, who was told she’d need spinal surgery in 1994.

“I asked her mother to bring her and to see if the therapy could help,” Hefler said. “When she went in for a pre-surgery evaluation weeks later, the doctor told her parents, ‘The kid on this table isn’t the same kid we evaluated on this chart. What have you been doing?’ And they said, ‘The only thing is riding.’

“She never needed surgery. When you see things like that … I don’t know how I could ever stop doing this. If there’s not this, there’s nothing similar around here for people (who need the center’s help) to seek out.”

Each year, before the organization’s “Harley for Horses” motorcycle ride fundraiser, a man who goes by the name of “Doc” leads the pre-ride prayer and gives a speech. He’s fond of saying that when “the little bitties are on top of that horse, they feel as powerful as anyone.”

“Horses are a great motivator,” Hefler said. “When you’re little, as many of our riders are, and you get up on that horse, it gives them a completely different point of view. One of our riders got up there and just exclaimed, ‘My wheelchair looks so small from here!’”

The Harley for Horses fundraiser is held in honor of fallen St. John Police Deputy Brandon Nielsen, a motorcycle enthusiast who led the ride’s police escort before his death. His family makes the annual trip from Houston to ride with the convoy.

The center also holds the annual “Plop Drop” as a second fundraiser, which helps offset the costs of caring for the horses and allows Hefler to keep the rider fee at $25. The Plop Drop was held this month and will continue to be held as a winter event going forward. Volunteers, she said, have also been a big lift to she and her husband Stephen, who run the Riding Center together.

And in addition to her duties as executive director of the riding center, Hefler is responsible for bringing the “Ashley Marie Kelley Learn To Swim” program to LaPlace, which has been in existence for three years and is offered free to residents of St. John Parish. Hefler is a certified water safety instructor by the American Red Cross.

“The St John Parish Recreation Department is waiting on a lift for the pool, and we hope to have a program for the special needs population in our parish next year,” Hefler said.

“But my heart and soul is with the kids and the horses. I’m now much like our therapy horses: we’re still in a race, but the finish line is a bit different. Our finish line consists of the health and happiness of our riders.”

The Riding Center is located at 152 Shadow Brook Lane in LaPlace. For more information, to sign up or volunteer, visit or call 985-651-5239.