Jacquelynn McKenzie ’18 has spent the spring semester working at an equestrian center that specializes in helping children and adults with autism, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, dementia, and other physical, emotional, intellectual, and educational challenges.
McKenzie, who goes by Jacque — pronounced like “Jackie” — said she was looking for an internship that combined her love of horseback riding and her major, health promotion. Her advisor, Dr. Charlotte Guynes, suggested she look into therapeutic riding programs. It sounded like a good idea. “Studies have shown how much horseback riding can benefit mental, physical, and emotional disorders,” McKenzie, who’s been riding since age 8, said. “It’s pretty interesting.”
Through an online search, McKenzie found Rainbow Therapeutic Riding Center in Haymarket, Virginia. As a bonus, the nonprofit is located near her family’s home in Nokesville. McKenzie contacted the folks at Rainbow, who offered her an internship.
One of McKenzie’s primary responsibilities at the riding center is feeding the horses and getting them ready for each day’s lessons. “The horse is the tool that everyone uses,” she said. “You have to make sure they’re ready and cared for, so they can do their job. Sometimes, I help out with the lessons. It depends on what the day looks like.”
Rainbow has about 150 volunteers and about 80 students, some of whom require three volunteers each — someone leading the horse and one on each side of it. When they’re short on volunteers, McKenzie is quick to throw her hat in the ring. “She’s always ready to step in,” Mary Vardi, program director at Rainbow, said. “She helps keep our barn nice and neat and organized. She helps with the training. She’s a very nice rider, very capable, and helps us school our horses. Anything we have going on, she jumps in.”
Seeing McKenzie’s work ethic — Vardi calls it “unbelievable” — the Rainbow staff suggested that she become certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, or PATH. The organization sets the standards for therapeutic riding centers like Rainbow. She’ll finish the certification later this month.
“As soon as we saw how interested she was and what a good horse person she is, we asked her if she wanted to become a certified instructor,” Vardi said. “There’s lots of prep work to do for that certification: written exams, all kinds of forms, recommendations, and then she has to do 25 hours of supervised teaching. She’ll go to a three-day workshop and then certification testing, in Pennsylvania, all at once.”
Asked what she likes most about her internship, McKenzie said it’s seeing students make headway. “The best part is seeing how the students have progressed and seeing how the horse can help them,” she said, adding that one student in particular stands out. “She can’t verbally communicate with us to tell us what she wants. She gets upset when she can’t go outside and ride.”
On one rainy day, the instructors discovered that she likes music. They started incorporating music into her lessons and the results were remarkable. “She’s so much more energetic with the horses,” McKenzie said. “She doesn’t get as upset. The horse’s movements and all the interactions with the horses brighten the student’s day and help them with their [own] movements.”
The horses aren’t the only ones making a difference at Rainbow. “She does … even more than we would ever expect,” Vardi said of McKenzie. “She’s really, really good. Really good. Very eager to learn, jumping in wherever we need help. It’s been an amazing experience. We’d be very happy to have more interns from Lynchburg, if they’re like Jacque.”