By BETHANY BLITZ
Brandon Meeks bounced back and forth between excitement and terror.
When he saw the horses, his eyes and smile widened simultaneously. But when he went to pet one of them, he squirmed and backed away. When his classmates got to ride the horses, he was happy for them and liked watching them walk around the arena. But when it was his turn to get on one, he almost broke into tears and sat down.
Cindy Wiltsie, the owner of Running W Ranch, received help from some volunteers to pick Brandon up and plop him on the horse.
The second-grader from Greensferry Elementary nervously situated himself in the saddle and held on. When he looked up, his classmates erupted into cheers for him.
“Brandon did it,” said Debbie Hernandez, the special education teacher at Greensferry. “He doesn’t go to birthday parties, he doesn’t do anything. This is really amazing.”
Hernandez’s class was on a field trip Friday at the Running W Ranch near Rathdrum to work with therapy horses. Ranch owners Cindy and Don Wiltsie greeted their little guests and talked to them about not running near the horses and wearing helmets for safety.
The couple started doing therapy riding about a year and a half ago. They said each day is incredible, getting to watch kids grow and challenge themselves.
Therapeutic riding is known to promote strength, increase flexibility, develop balance, improve coordination and boost confidence and self-esteem in people with special needs.
Cindy said she was so proud of Brandon for finally getting on the horse.
“I try not to let them cave in to their fears,” she said. “This is a huge milestone for him.”
After a lap around the arena, Brandon got more confident, boldly telling the horse to “walk on” and exclaiming he needed to take the horse home.
One of the paraprofessionals with Greensferry Elementary, Cindy Boyle, was beaming as she walked next to Brandon’s horse.
“My heart is happy,” she said. “I didn’t think he was going to get on. This is what makes the job worth it.”
Each of the nine students in the group got to ride around the arena a few times and then played games on the horses, tossing bean-bags into hoops on the ground as they walked past.
Destiney Palm, a second-grader, could have easily been the happiest person on Earth Friday afternoon. When she got on her horse she let out a giggle and wouldn’t stop smiling the entire time. She was also a big cheerleader for her friends who were a little more nervous than she was.
Victor Campbell, a third-grader in the group, also hesitated when getting on a horse. When he got on, he gripped the horn of the saddle so hard his knuckles went white. He also made sure to hold the hand of one of the volunteers walking next to him.
His mom, Jean, was so excited for her son to have this opportunity, she took half a day off work to go watch him ride. As Victor rode past, he wanted to wave, but wasn’t willing to let go. So, without taking his palm off the saddle, he uncurled some of his fingers and wiggled them in her direction.
But just like Brandon, after getting used to being on the horse, he grew more confident.
“I’m riding a horse,” he exclaimed repeatedly. “I’m a real horse rider!”
Every once in a while he would let out a “Yee-haw!” and throw both his hands in the air.
Victor’s mom said he has always loved farm animals and horses but whenever it came time to go pet one, he always got scared.
“This is something he’s going to be talking about for a long time,” she said.