Blue Rider Stables hosts annual Hoedown — with therapeutic touch

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On a hot summer day at Blue Rider Stables, gentle breezes were few and far between.

Inside the roomy barn, a mixed herd of horses plus two tall-eared donkeys stood in quiet contemplation, cooled by whirring fans and darkened shade.

On Saturday, a horde of two-legged fans will travel down the long dirt road to the same South Egremont barn, now carefully cleaned to host the annual Hoedown, a festive family event in its 10th year.

Rousing music from The Kitchen Kaylie Band will ring rafters usually filled with birdsong, inviting everyone with instruction and encouragement from caller Anne Banks to Do-Si-Do and Promenade and perhaps "Peel the Banana" with fellow revelers young and old.

This year, Blue Rider Stables celebrates its 25th anniversary of bringing equines and humans together for mutual therapeutic benefit.

Founded in Housatonic in 1991 by Chip Carlson with one rideable horse and four students, Blue Rider soon moved to its present 28 acre site where, under the guidance of current Executive Director Christine Sierau, it has grown to some 800 riders a year from as far away as California and Kenya.

"I love teaching and I've always worked with special needs people," said Sierau, who trained extensively in Michigan and England and realized the therapeutic nature of riding "probably the first time I touched a horse."

Blue Rider Stables houses a herd of 13 horses and three donkeys, ranging in size from Billy Boy, a grey Greek donkey at just 11 hands and 250 pounds to Twist, a blonde Belgian draft horse at 18 hands and 2,200 pounds. Chestnut Ramona is the alpha mare, and keeps everybody safe and in place.

Most were rescued or rehabilitated locally, with one brought over from Iceland by a board member. "They're really good for therapy because they have a gait that keeps their back level," Sierau said.

Lessons attract riders aged from 2 to 80 of all abilities. While challenges can include autism and deafness, some children just want to touch and ride horses and learn more about them.

The horses are always under their own control and can come and go as they please. They spend nights in the fields to eat, but can always come inside the barn for shade and water.

"They run when they want to," Sierau said. "When it cools off you should see them go."

"[During lessons] we lead or side walk and there's always an instructor that can mediate and moderate with their voice," she said, "but we try for independence as quickly as is harmoniously possible."

On the sunny summer day, the stables bustle with campers as young as 3 and staff in boldly patterned, multicolored britches. A boy sits atop a donkey on a striped blanket circled by a leather strap which he lightly grasps. There are no saddles on these equines, simply the close connection between rider and mount to keep passengers in place.

Billy Boy wanders over to the barn gate to say hello. The 29-year-old donkey with ginger tips on his stubby grey Mohawk mane is a local celebrity, appearing some years ago on Animal Planet and in Martha Stewart's magazine.

"We used to bring him to nursing homes and hospitals," said outreach coordinator Robin Parow. "At the time he was the only registered therapy donkey in the country."

During her lengthy Blue Rider therapeutic riding apprenticeship, Parow studied the burning question: Why do horses make us feel so good?

She credits it to their bigness and kindness, and "the ability to sit on the animal and let it move underneath you," she said. "It's an experience of trust and letting go."

The anniversary celebrations will continue this fall with the annual Fun Day at French Park on Aug. 27, and "A Horse of a Different Color" fundraising gala on Sept. 17 at Chesterwood, Stockbridge home and studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French.

But on Saturday, "the horses are allowing us to have their barn for a whole night with music," Sierau said. They will stand outside in the arena behind a rope and listen.

Jin Fernbacher, 11, a camp veteran of eight summers from Great Barrington, is looking forward to the Hoedown.

"It's fun to dance, and the music is really good," she said, "and the barn is nice and clean and full."

"A lot of people come that don't usually ride here," added Isabel Haywood, 15, of Stockbridge. "It's a good way to introduce people, and we clean up really nice!"

If you go ...

What: 10th Annual Hoedown

Where: Blue Rider Stables, 15 Farm Lane, South Egremont

When: 6-9 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $5, refreshments available for purchase

Information: bluerider.org (413) 528-5299


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