When she was born, doctors told MaryKate Herrera's mother that she would never walk, run or even speak. That all changed when MaryKate began equine therapy at Rising Star Riders in Tehachapi.
Founder Kelly McBride started RSR in 2006, and will celebrate her 15th year of helping adults and children with special needs advance and grow through the assistance of her gentle horses and ponies.
"What inspired me to start was one student. I have been a horse trainer and riding instructor pretty much my teenage and adult life," said McBride, who is a licensed clinical social worker.
Upon arriving in Tehachapi, McBride said, she met MaryKate, a student of a previous program who captured her heart.
"Her mom really wanted me to start my own program so that she could continue riding horses. It was because of MaryKate that I started this program," McBride said.
McBride said her horses helped MaryKate, born with many challenges, connect and gain strength as well as have a social outlet after previous therapy efforts failed due to her lack of interest.
"When she met my horses, everything changed," McBride said.
Over time, MaryKate began walking, talking and smiling after receiving years of therapy at RSR.
"She actually physically ran across the ground during one of our activities, and her mother burst into tears because it was the first time she had ever seen her child run," McBride said, adding, "She is an amazing kid, but she also has an amazing family."
McBride said she has zero employees, as everyone at RSR is a volunteer, including two riding instructors in addition to herself.
McBride said the hardest part of operating RSR during COVID-19 is keeping the volunteers coming.
"We really need volunteers! What a great way to be outside and interacting with others," said McBride, who follows all CDC guidelines in her daily operations.
Volunteer Janet Devine said the most rewarding part of being a volunteer with RSR is experiencing the joy of young riders as they accomplish something new.
"I didn’t start this adventure as a 'horse person,' but with the help of the wonderful volunteers and instructors, I have gained so much knowledge and have grown to love these big, gentle, perceptive animals," Devine said.
Devine went on to say that a typical lesson involves, usually with the help of a student, grooming and saddling the horse.
"During the lesson, I might lead the horse, walk beside the horse, or maybe just observe and help the instructor as needed," Devine said. "Some other tasks are slightly less glamorous, such as scooping manure, but still very rewarding."
Asked what she loves most about volunteering at RSR, Devine said, "What could be better than helping children, working with wonderful people, and getting to know these healing animals? I also get to be outdoors and get some exercise."
Instructor Nancy Chefalo also serves as the RSR board treasurer.
"I’ve been with Rising Star Riders for four years, a program of which I am extremely proud," Chefalo said.
Her lesson activities include individual attention as well as games and obstacle courses.
"I have seen so many positive developments in our riders when they begin to learn to ride and develop that special bond with our horses," Chefalo said. "Shy children come out of their shells."
In addition. Chefalo said she enjoys seeing children with low self-esteem gain confidence with every lesson.
Said Chefalo, "Children that are having difficulties paying attention, learn its importance while guiding a 1,000-pound animal. Our riders, who need practice in speech, come alive with the excitement of riding a horse."
Chefalo went on to say that riders with physical needs in particular benefit from the equine therapy program.
"Riding a horse helps develop balance, muscle flexibility, and muscle strength," she said. "Watching our riders grow as individuals is very rewarding for me!"
McBride said volunteers do not need to have any previous horse experience; they just have to have an interest in being around them.
Said McBride, "There are no words that can describe the deep and silent connection between a horse and a child."
Although the primary focus of RSR is children with special needs, McBride said she welcomes everyone.
"We have really opened it up to everyone in the community since COVID," McBride said. "We welcome anyone who wants to come out and have an activity with a horse. I just don't know how parents are doing it with all the homeschooling and no outlet."
All aspects of horse care are taught at RSR, whether mounted and unmounted in nature.
McBride said she can also assist children with mental health needs.
"Kelly was wonderful with our girls and they feel so blessed to get to ride and care for the horses," Julie Brown wrote in a Facebook review.
Carol Knipp also wrote, "Love Kelly's dedication to the children who come to our program. It doesn't get any better than children learning with smiles on their faces!"
RSR is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization that operates on donations, fundraisers and through client participation. However, McBride said she would never turn anyone away based on their inability to pay.
Since the pandemic has taken a toll on most planned fundraisers for RSR over the past year, McBride welcomes scholarship sponsorships as well as fundraiser ideas.