Falling snowflakes and cool temperatures were no match for the anticipation in the air as riders and their families entered the barn for Walk On Therapeutic Riding program’s first session of its 20th anniversary year in River Falls. It was the first full session the PATH -- Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship -- certified center has run since 2019. Due to the pandemic, Walk On could only offer very limited lessons last season.
On May 4, there were “Hi Ken’s” (Ken Giske is Walk On’s program director) and masked hugs of reunion. Riders were assigned their mount and started the grooming and saddling process with trained volunteers at their sides. Then, the missed-yet-familiar clamor of “horse coming through!” rang through the bard as each group left its stall to enter the riding arena.
In 1988, Ken and his wife, Katy, moved to their home and acreage in River Falls (and current program location). The Giskes started to populate their 20 acres with horses, dogs and cats. Ken, who has a degree in adaptive physical education and athletic training, was employed at Courage Kenny Rehabilitation Institute as the director of aquatics and Katy as a therapeutic recreational specialist in chemical dependency and mental health counselor at the time.
With two preschool-aged daughters, she decided to open a home day care. This allowed the couple to turn their “What if we tried to create an adaptive riding program?” dream into reality and Walk On Therapeutic Riding Program was established in 2001.
Ken became a certified PATH instructor, horses were specifically trained, and volunteers and funding sought. Katy became vice president and took charge of the multi-channel communication between riders and families as well as volunteer recruitment, training and coordination.
“Our first pilot class of five riders and 15 volunteers was held on Monday, September 10, 2001. It was one filled with laughter, fun and everyone having a positive interaction with equine,” Ken said. “But the next day’s events of September 11 cast a shadow of uncertainty and fear on everyone’s lives.”
Ken and Katy considered canceling the following Monday class but decided to move forward. After a subdued start, they started to see smiles and witness the engagement of riders following Ken’s instructions to stop, turn and “Walk On!”
“The sounds and excitement of that evening proved that we had a needed and promising program -- without a shadow of doubt,” said Ken.
Over the past 20 years, Walk On has continued to thrive and has expanded to run six sessions from April to Thanksgiving. With 28 riders per session, each rider requires 1-to-3 volunteer assists depending on his or her level of experience and physical, emotional or cognitive challenges. Riders participate from all over Pierce and St. Croix counties to receive the numerous benefits therapeutic horsemanship provides: improved motor skills, core strength, muscle tone, posture, and perhaps most important - confidence.
“Many of our riders struggle with expressing themselves vocally. So it is imperative that they direct the horses with ‘walk on, whoa, and horse coming through,’” Ken said.
In the fall of 2007, Katy was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Throughout her treatment, she continued her essential roles of coordinating participants, volunteers and providing day care to many children until she succumbed to the disease in April 2011.
“I took a year off from running the program to evaluate whether to continue or not. When Katy and I began in 2001, we knew there was a need for the program and the positive experience it provided to the riders,” Ken said, adding that he knew deep down it was something he could not walk away from -- he'd spent a career and life of serving those with disabilities. Walk On reopened in April of 2012.
Walk On receives a portion of its operating dollars from Pierce and St. Croix counties and rider registration fees, but for two decades, fundraising has been an integral part to sustain the therapeutic riding program and the year-round dedication it requires. “For instance, there are horses to feed and care for, maintenance of the barn and pastures and supplies to purchase,” said Ken.
COVID affected Walk On’s ability to run its major fundraiser, the Annual Gala. With restrictions lifting and positive cases lowering, Walk On will host a golf scramble on July 31 and The Annual Gala on Sept. 25; both will be held at Pheasant Hills Golf Course in Hammond.
Other fundraising activities include GiveBigStCroix that occurred April 27 and the sale of handmade greeting cards. The website has current information about all of its events and activities: www.walkontherapeutichorsemanship.org.
“It’s unbelievable that we’ve been supported and have improved the lives of so many for two decades,” Ken said. It is the riders whose experiences that keep him motivated, such as the accomplished equestrian who had a severe brain injury from a car accident. “When she mounted her horse, she kept shouting, ‘I am riding and I feel free!’”