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Cecil County Life

Finding freedom through therapeutic riding

Jan 07, 2015 06:38PM ● By Kerigan Butt

Cheyenne Keen in the North East Christmas Parade.

By Steven Hoffman

Staff Writer

On most Tuesday and Friday evenings, Mike Porter can be found riding horses with his daughter, Annie, at the Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Center in Port Deposit. He treasures these horseback riding sessions with his daughter because he doesn’t get to enjoy very many outdoor activities with her.

In the summer of 2001, Porter suffered an attack of Transverse Myelitis, leaving him with a variety of neurological problems in the spine. His life was changed forever. He could no longer walk without mechanical aids and he started continuous physical therapy, eventually finding his way to the Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program. He is still enjoying the benefits of the therapeutic riding more than nine years later.

“Equine facilitated therapy is more than just riding a horse,” Porter wrote in a testimonial on the Freedom Hills website. “I had never ridden a horse before so having someone capable of teaching me to relax during that first lesson was crucial. It was not until a few lessons later that I learned just how important a relaxed, balanced position is when riding. I am glad I started learning proper form at the outset.”

Porter’s story is one of many stories at Freedom Hills—there have been thousands of them since Renee Dixon founded the therapeutic riding program more than three decades ago.

During an interview in early May, Dixon shared several other stories that illustrate what Freedom Hills has meant to the men and women and boys and girls who have come to the program  needing something more than a few hours of recreation.

Dixon talks about a 17-year-old girl who broke her neck while diving into the pool and was left as a paraplegic. She started coming to Freedom Hills three or four days a week and made steady progress.

“One of her goals,” Dixon explained, “was to walk across the stage when she got her diploma. She was able to do that with a walker. Then she got married at the age of 26. She walked up the aisle to her husband with her parents’ assistance.”

Krystal Greco was only 14 when she ruptured two discs that left her as a paraplegic. She also found her way to Freedom Hills.

“Now, she’s able to drive her own car,” Dixon said.

Dixon is excited to share these stories, proud of her life’s work. She was still a teenager when she decided that she wanted to combine her love of horses with a desire to provide therapy to those who need it. Freedom Hills was founded in 1982, operating at the Rolling Hills Ranch in the pastoral countryside of Port Deposit.

Therapeutic horseback riding—the use of horses and equine-assisted activities in order to achieve goals that enhance physical, social, cognitive, behavioral, or educational skills for people who have disabilities—dates back centuries and has been used around the world. The popularity of therapeutic riding in the United States blossomed in the 1960s.

Equine-facilitated therapy has been successful in helping people show improvement in everything from emotional awareness to impulse control to recovering from grief or loss. There are obvious physical benefits to horseback riding. Dixon said that horses move in a rhythmic motion that mimics the human movement of walking. While riding, the horse’s stride acts to move the rider’s pelvis in the same rotation and side-to-side movement that occurs when walking. Riders improve their strength, balance, coordination, flexibility, and confidence. Children with autism can work on their balance. It helps people with cerebral palsy build muscle tone. It has proven to be an effective therapy for people who have Down Syndrome or people who are recovering from strokes.

According to Dixon, equine-facilitated therapy can be beneficial for people facing a variety of challenges. The benefit gained through therapeutic riding differs from person to person based on many different factors, including the type of disability, the severity of the disability, and the motivation of the rider.

“I like to look at a person’s abilities instead of their disabilities,” Dixon explained. “We believe that everyone should be able to ride.”

The classes are conducted by trained instructors and assisted by volunteers and physical therapists when needed. Safety is always the highest priority.

Dixon attained premier status from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship and is also a certified advanced instructor, an American Riding Instructor, and a certified level III centered riding instructor.

Over the years, children as young as 18 months and people as old as 99 have benefited from the therapy at Freedom Hills. Currently, between 50 and 75 ride each week in the spring and fall, and more than 100 participate each week during the summer. Dixon said that Freedom Hills draws riders from Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania.

Another part of the therapy at Freedom Hills is the grooming and caring for the animals. Brushing, bathing and other activities can have a calming effect.

Thirty years ago, Freedom Hills became the second program in the U.S. to offer horseback riding therapy to military veterans. Horseback riding can be a very relaxing activity for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We like to get our veterans out on the trails,” Dixon said. “One veteran says that it helps him calm down and sleep at night when nothing else does.”

Dixon said that it’s an honor to help those who have served their country.

With more than three decades in the business, Dixon has created precisely the kind of facility that she believes will be most beneficial to people who need therapeutic services. Whenever someone new comes to the farm, Dixon wants that person to immediately feel at home, like a friend of the family stopping by to ride a horse. The staff at Freedom Hills is trained to provide the assistance that clients need to get the full benefits from the therapy.

When Dixon first started the therapeutic riding program, her family, especially her mother and father, were very supportive of the idea. It was her mother who said that “freedom” should be in the name because the program would help offer people freedom from their wheelchairs and crutches.

“We want to give people the freedom to be themselves,” Dixon said.

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email

Day camp

Freedom Hills runs a day camp four weeks out of the year. The camp runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.

How to help

The therapeutic riding programs and services are offered to people with disabilities at a cost that they can afford. There are many volunteer opportunities, and donations are also needed to keep providing these services to people who need them.

A Hugs for Heroes fundraiser is set for June 16, with all the proceeds going back to support the veterans programs.

Another good way to help support Freedom Hills is to donate your birthday. Instead of receiving unnecessary gifts, ask instead that friends and family make a donation to Freedom Hills.

Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program

55 Rolling Hills Ranch Ln

Port Deposit, MD 21904


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