By Mikhayla Dunaj

Passersby on M-140 in Watervliet may see a horse barn in a largely rural area and not think twice. However, the barn has been changing lives since 2006.

The Therapeutic Equestrian Center, 615 M-140, is a nonprofit combining horses and people of all ages with special needs to challenge, strengthen and inspire.

“It’s an effort between the people and the horses,” says TEC Board President and Instructor Autumn Zick. “Our horses are very special. Not every horse makes this team. Many have tried, but it’s not an easy gig for them.”

The barn started when Autumn and other Weekend Ride 4H club members wanted to make therapeutic horse-riding available to all ages throughout the year. TEC now serves people in Berrien, Cass and Van Buren counties. Over time, partnerships between the barn and the tri-county area it serves have grown.

These partnerships include programs like Ride with Pride for Lighthouse Education Center and Berrien RESA students. Through these partnerships, teens and young adults with special needs work in the barn and gain job skills.

“It’s a good opportunity for them to work for someone other than their teachers and paraprofessionals,” Autumn says. “It’s a chance to work on teamwork and explore different avenues they might find interesting for careers, much like any other teen that goes out to get a job.”

Because most of the other sites used for this program couldn’t accommodate students due to COVID-19, TEC was the only site available last fall. Other partnerships exist with Blossomland Learning Center, local schools, and soon, Spectrum Health Lakeland. A program at TEC working with physical and occupational therapists is in the works. The barn also hosts TEC with VETS, providing therapeutic riding and volunteer opportunities for veterans and their family members.

“The way a horse survives is much the same way that someone in combat survives,” Autumn says. “They have to be hyper vigilant and horses have that sense. That’s how they know when it’s time to flee. Working with veterans and horses is just a really good fit. It helps anxiety, it gets people out of their house and involved in a positive experience.”

Due to the pandemic, some of these programs paused in the 2020 season. When TEC is able to be open, the organization offers semi-private lessons. Participants have ranged in age from 4-year-olds to senior citizens. The barn is handicap accessible with both indoor and outdoor arenas. Several participants in wheelchairs have never walked before and always look up at who they’re talking to. The horse offers a new perspective, Autumn says.

“When they’re on a horse, it’s the exact opposite,” she says. “It’s a very empowering feeling. The horse becomes their legs, and they can work on upper body strength or core strength.”

Each experience is tailored to the participant and their goals. Mike Buddemeier, of Lawton, brought his son, Alex, to TEC a few years ago for an extracurricular activity. Alex, who is mostly nonverbal, has loved it ever since.

“I’ve been trying his whole life to teach him the left and right hand,” Mike says. “Autumn is wonderful with these kids. It’s a lot more than just horse riding. In the last year or so we’ve been really focusing on steering and I think he’s about got it down. It doesn’t sound like a huge accomplishment but for him it’s a pretty big deal.”

Mike said he would recommend TEC’s work to anyone. His son has a hard time occupying himself and the program moves him away from watching TV to interact with animals and people, out of the house.

No horse experience is necessary for participants and all volunteers must be at least 14. Their training results in a therapeutic horsemanship certification. TEC’s operation is largely part-time and volunteer workers. In 2019, the volunteers donated more than 8,600 hours at the barn.

Autumn’s journey with therapeutic riding began more than 40 years ago. At TEC, she combines that passion with her former 30-year career speech pathologist career at Blossomland Learning Center.

“I could always see the benefit of what [horses] gave to me and the skills that transfer far away from the barn,” Autumn says. “I wanted to have those same opportunities for others. There’s a whole wide variety of people that work behind the scenes to make that all happen so all of that combines all the things I really love.”

There are currently five horses at TEC, and the barn is looking for more. Each horse is carefully selected, cared for and paired with the right participant. Horses only work three hours at a time. The youngest is 10 and most are in their late 20s, Autumn says.

“When we get a good one, we do our darndest to keep them healthy and happy campers,” she says. “The knowledge they bring to therapeutic riding — the patience they have working with folks — it’s   pretty unique.”

Lessons run from around Valentine’s Day to mid-December. Volunteer training starts in February. There are scholarships available for riders on a case-by-case basis. Those interested in getting involved by riding, volunteering or providing a horse can visit, TEC’s Facebook page or call (269) 429-0671.

“Come to the barn and let the horses work their magic,” Zick says. “You come out of the barn at the end of your day feeling wonderful and it doesn’t get better than that.” χ