Jordan’s smiles tug at the hearts of John and Kelly Olerud. The smiles are the giveaway that Jordan, their daughter, enjoys being on horseback at Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center in Woodinville. At 10 year old, Jordan can’t talk. She can’t walk unless a therapist stands beside her and helps. But put her on a horse at Little Bit and despite a chromosome abnormality, Jordan glows with happiness. She sits up straighter.
We’ve seen a difference in Jordan’s life since she started at Little Bit,” said John Olerud, a retired two-time Major League Baseball All-Star and World Series champion who played with the Mariners for part of his career. “She couldn’t sit up on her own when we started.”
Little Bit specializes in equestrian therapy. Therapeutic horseback riding improves a rider’s balance, builds muscle, sharpens hand-eye coordination and imparts self confidence. For people with physical or developmental disabilities, weekly or bi-weekly rides at Little Bit can mean the difference between walking and not walking. For children like Jordan, being able to develop her core strength from atop the horse can mean the difference between sitting up or not.
Little Bit is currently the only therapeutic horseback riding facility in King and Snohomish counties. It serves about 525 riders a week and more than 200 are on the waiting list.
It was the waiting list that got to the board of the nonprofit, the staff and the volunteers. Expansion was not an option because the stable is landlocked at the 3-acre Woodinville site, surrounded by private homes and the Tolt Pipeline. Families, volunteers and staff jockeyed for space in the small parking lot.
The Oleruds helped launch a capital campaign in 2005 and a search for a new site began. John Olerud, who once made Sports Illustrated’s “Greatest Infielders Ever” list, wants to make certain that other children like Jordan don’t have to wait for help. Little Bit wanted to stay on the Eastside. The goal was to find land somewhere between Renton and the Snohomish County line with relatively close access to a freeway. Clients come from all areas of the greater Seattle area and from as far away as Granite Falls.
In 2007, a staff member stopped at Simpatico Stables on Northeast 106th Street in Redmond, just a few miles away, in search of a place to board her own horse. What she found was a perfect home for Little Bit. To purchase the land and build the new facility, the group needed $11 million.
Then the economy tanked.
No one gave up. The Oleruds and others kept raising money for the new site in addition to the normal fundraising to meet Little Bit’s nearly $2 million annual budget. Riders typically pay about $90 or so per therapy session. It costs about four times that to provide the therapists, volunteers, horse trainer, horses, plus the overhead costs of the barn and insurance.
The capital campaign still is under way. So far, they’ve raised a little more than $8 million. Rather than wait until the entire amount was in hand, Little Bit opted to develop the new site in phases. The parking and building foundations have been laid and the new welcome center has been shelled in. Kathy Alm, Little Bit’s executive director, said the new facility should be done this spring and limited services will be there sometime this year. Eventually, Alm expects to accommodate 480 riders a week – double than what it does now.
That also means doubling the volunteer pool and horse herd. Not all horses make good therapy animals. Patience is required because the work is so repetitive and can be boring to the horses. After 10 weeks of work, horses are shipped to area farms for a vacation.
Therapeutic riding, said Alm, works because a horse’s smooth rhythm and movement and body warmth are transmitted to the rider. Even though horses are four-footed, their movement mimics the muscles humans use when they walk.
For Sue Lamoree, a 50-year-old Kirkland woman who became a quadriplegic more than a decade ago because of a disease similar to MS, it’s like being back on her own two feet.
“My horse, Sunny, and I were in the outside ring that has a sand base,” Lamoree said. “I could feel the sand through Sunny’s movement. My body felt like I was back on a beach, running barefoot.”
Lamoree said her weekly rides help her maintain her remaining muscle tone and her balance. John and Kelly Olerud know it helps Jordan, too. Alm sees similar things hourly.
But anecdotal stories don’t convince insurance companies. That’s why Little Bit will turn its Woodinville facility into a research center with the goal of scientifically proving what founder Margaret Dunlap says she learned in 1976. She believes horseback riding inhibited the progress of her multiple sclerosis. If it could help her, it would help others, particularly children. About 75 percent of the clients are kids.
The driving factor that has kept the board, fundraising committee, and other folks who believe in the program active has been the long waiting list. “So many developmental milestones need to be met between the ages of 2 and 7,” Alm said. “It hurts when I have to tell parents we don’t have room for their child.
Without room, that child may miss the opportunity to talk or walk.”