‘Horse mastermind’ helps those with disabilities learn to ride


Jade Dixon described Jenny Jones in two words: “Horse mastermind.”

And then she giggled, but not because she was joking.

In fact, Jones told the 9-year-old that she is planning to have that moniker embossed on a business card.

Jones, a supervisor in the Medical School Office of Research, is involved with the nonprofit organization Therapeutic Riding Inc., where she helps people with disabilities gain life lessons and foster independence by learning to ride horses.

A photo of a person riding a horse while being led by another person.
Jenny Jones, a supervisor with the Medical School Office of Research, accompanies a rider at Therapeutic Riding Inc., where she helps people with disabilities gain life lessons and foster independence by learning to ride horses. (Photo by Laura Adams Photographic Art)

Jade, who has a rare neurologic condition called acute flaccid myelitis, has been at TRI for over two years. Over that time, Jones and Jade have developed a strong bond and Jones has seen remarkable improvement in Jade’s core strength and ability to ride independently.

That’s just one of the many things that drew Jones to TRI.

“It is a very proud moment and very heart-warming to see that level of independence and skills,” Jones said. “One of my first riders had two sidewalkers, then one, then just me. I remember being told it was OK to step away, to the point where I was just in the middle, watching her ride independently and that’s just a very cool thing to see.”

TRI, a partner organization for the U-M Adaptive Sports Program, is in its 40th year of offering an adaptive environment and an enriching experience. It has a hydraulic lift to assist riders mounting a horse and different adaptive technology when they’re onboard, such as specialized saddles, stirrups and reins.

Jones, who began volunteering in 2011, said Therapeutic Riding Inc.’s name is a bit of a misnomer.

“People get confused because of our name, but we do not do any type of therapy,” she said. “I would argue that for anyone who enjoys being around horses, it’s therapeutic, and riding provides awesome benefits for your body. We have goals and we teach riding, and all that’s needed is that adaptive environment to be able to do it for everybody.”

Jones said she had always been interested in animals, and horses specifically, but could never have one growing up. Friends of hers from middle school had started volunteering at TRI and told her of the experience.

She decided to give it a try in 2011, right after TRI opened the Harold and Kay Peplau Therapeutic Riding Center, made possible after a $2 million capital outlay project.

“This was sort of a gateway to playing with horses,” Jones said. “They had just built a brand-new facility when I started volunteering, so I tease them that I waited until they had indoor plumbing to start volunteering.”

When she first took part in volunteer orientation, she felt supported and that helped convince her she could handle the responsibilities. She was slotted into a spot helping on Wednesday nights, starting out as a sidewalker — assisting riders while walking alongside the horse.

“You’re very much rider focused, which that was a brand new thing for me,” she said. “I hadn’t done anything really with kids or people with disabilities. I’m an animal person, so this was new.”

She eventually took on the role of horse leader, where she was essentially a conduit between the rider and the horse, but what kept her hooked was the joy the riders expressed.

A photo of a woman with a horse
Jenny Jones poses with Miz Skarlett, an Arabian mare at Therapeutic Riding Inc. (Photo courtesy of Jenny Jones)

“I can think back to my little peanuts who still ride,” she said. “That excitement like how Jade bursts through the door. That’s how they all come through.”

The horses are a massive draw as well, and TRI has 14 horses in its herd. Jones never rode much as a youngster and because TRI offers para-dressage opportunities to show horses, she decided to give it a try to show students it’s not scary.

She took Serena, one of the more dependable horses to the show, and all went well. But even the most dependable horse is still a horse.

“She takes care of most advanced riders and can do all the fancy things,” Jones said. “But you put a little kid on her, and it’s like she goes, ‘OK, my job today is to take care of this tiny human’ and she does a great job.

“This one time, she farted so loud that she scared herself. So some days she has her moments, too.”

Jones recently upped her level of involvement with TRI by earning two certifications: as a Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, and as a Level 1 certified instructor for both physical and cognitive disabilities through the Certified Horsemanship Association.

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Last year she was at TRI four nights a week, and this year she’s there doing volunteer training on Mondays, her group classes Wednesdays and teaching an independent rider on Fridays.

While every day at TRI offers different challenges and unexpected experiences, Jones said the feeling she has when she leaves is always the same.

“It feels like a mental reset. No matter what you are going into it, being there, you’re completely engaged,” she said. “My brain goes everywhere in the real world. When you leave (TRI), it’s just satisfaction, contentment and joy, all that wrapped up in community.

“You leave like you’ve just taken a really deep breath and things are good for at least a little bit.”


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