25 years of therapeutic riding: GNOTRC supports cost effective services with fundraisers

Published 12:08 am Saturday, February 17, 2018

LAPLACE —Anita Hefler saw the power of therapeutic horseback riding firsthand in the early 1990s, when a young lady with cerebral palsy showed enough improvement in muscle tone and motor skills to avert surgery.

The girl was one of Hefler’s first riders at Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children and adults with physical, emotional and learning disabilities.

Tucked away at 152 Shadowbrook Lane off of Airline Highway, GNOTRC is one of LaPlace’s best kept secrets, Hefler said.

The nonprofit was founded by Hefler in May 1993 in Bridge City and bounced around the New Orleans area for five years before finding a stable home in LaPlace.

The nonprofit has served the River Parishes since October 1998, and Hefler said it’s here to stay.

Hefler grew up around horses and first learned of the benefits of therapeutic riding centers during a horseshow. The pride on the kids’ faces that day is something that has never left her mind, and she’s seen the same look again and again in the years since.

Everyone benefits from riding, Hefler said.

“Whether someone is in a wheelchair or has low muscle tone or autism, riding helps,” Hefler said.

“The horse provides that 3-dimensional movement that is most similar to a human walking gait. It helps build strength, balance, coordination and head control.”

Brian Marelo, second from left, strengthens muscle tone in his legs through horseback riding classes.

The farm has been the site of countless success stories, including 8-year-old Brian Marelo, who has attended classes since he was 2 years old.

Doctors thought Brian would never be able to walk due to low muscle tone in his legs, but a few weeks of horseback riding was all it took to get him moving around with the help of a walker.

His mother, Gwenn Marelo, said he’s now able to walk with crutches.

“It’s helped him tremendously,” Gwenn said.

“It’s much more than physical. It’s social and builds confidence. Whenever you put him on a horse, he knows what to expect and feels in control.”

Derek Dennis, 10, has seen a similar spike in confidence.

Derek Dennis builds endurance and confidence at GNOTRC.

Typically a shy child, Derek is outgoing and full of questions whenever he is on the farm, according to his mother, Amy. She compared it to a switch going off inside of him, inciting natural curiosity.

Horseback riding has also worked wonders for Derek’s strength and endurance, Amy said. Since starting classes two years ago, the stroller he once needed to travel longer distances has been stored away, and he’s started running track with an adaptive group.

Riding classes aren’t only for children.

Kathy Milton of Garyville began taking classes three or four years ago to help with her multiple sclerosis and said her balance and strength have improved as a result. She said it’s also sharpened her cognitive abilities, as it’s critical to pay attention to your surroundings while on a horse.

“I would highly recommend it to anyone in need,” Milton said.

The cost of classes has remained an affordable $25 since GNOTRC’s opening, though the cost of providing classes has risen to about $80.

“We joke that we’re better than Coca-Cola because we’ve never raised our prices,” Hefler said. “It’s important to us to keep it affordable because families of our riders already have enough expenses as far as medical bills and travel.”

Planning several fundraisers a year is difficult but necessary work, Hefler said.

In honor of a quarter century of service, GNOTRC is kicking off a “$25 for 25” fundraising campaign with hopes of collecting at least 1,000 donations of at least $25 by May 23.

Chloe Doucet, top right, is seen having a blast at the farm as she navigates riding with an amputated arm and leg.

To donate, visit gnotrc.com or mail a check to P.O. Box 5095 in LaPlace.

On April 22, the 19th annual Harley for Horses benefit motorcycle run will raise proceeds for GNOTRC.

Open to riders of all makes of motorcycles, the run departs at 11 a.m. from the LaPlace Travel Center. The route leads to lunch at Manny’s Bar in Maurepas, stretches to French Settlement in Livingston Parish and concludes at Airline Motors in LaPlace.

Registration, $30 for a single rider and $50 for a rider and a passenger, opens at 9 a.m. the day of the event and includes lunch and a reception with music starting at 2:30 p.m. Participants must be 21 or older.

Other annual fundraisers include Christmas in the Crevasse – a holiday hayride, a “Rock, Ride & Rescue” silent auction at Rock ‘n’ Bowl in New Orleans and a “plop drop” ticket sale.

Community support for fundraisers is vital because it allows GNOTRC to continue serving local families, Hefler said.

Classes are open to three riders at a time and are facilitated by six volunteers.

For more information about classes or volunteer opportunities, visit gnotrc.com, like Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center on Facebook or call 985-651-5239.