When Ann O’Shallie came to Wilson 17 years ago, she came with a mandate from Col. Alfred Kitts, founder of the College’s equestrian program: establish a therapeutic riding program. It was a tall order for the time. Though other colleges dabbled in therapeutic riding as part of their equestrian studies program, only one offered it as a major.
O’Shallie stepped up to the challenge and wrote a curriculum for a four-year degree in equine-facilitated therapeutics (EFT), a program designed to not only give students a thorough knowledge of human disabilities and methods of teaching riders with disabilities, but also of the biomechanics and kinesiology of the horse - as well as techniques to train, evaluate and advance both horse and rider.
Today, Wilson is one of only five colleges throughout the United States to offer such a program.
O’Shallie brought as much experience in the field as anyone could in 1996, experience that began while studying equine science at the University of Maryland in the 1970s. It was during the aftermath of the Vietnam War and several injured veterans had expressed interest in learning to ride.
“We had to think about how to do that,” said O’Shallie. “Therapeutic programs were in existence, but they were very small and very new.”
In 1987, she took what she had learned and started the Tipperary Horse Center in Spring City, Pa., until the farm where she taught was sold. By luck or fluke of fate, she happened to visit a friend at Wilson, where Kitts overheard their conversation about therapeutic riding. That chance visit set her on a path that would take her far beyond the fields and barns of Wilson.
The goals of the program she created are multifaceted. To accomplish them, students take courses not only in equestrian studies, but also in education, psychology and small business management.
Lin Podolinsky ’08, founder and director of Nickers ‘N Neighs Therapeutic Riding Center (http://www.kidsonhorses.org), has nothing but praise for her former instructor. “As a professional in my field, I know that other programs in the country don’t even come close to comparing to the education I received under the tutelage of Ann O’Shallie,” she said. “Her name and reputation is of celebrity status in the field of EFT, for good reason. Her work in equine biomechanics and lesson planning and development is cutting edge.”
Under O’Shallie, a three-time recipient of Wilson’s Donald F. Bletz Teaching Award, students shoulder the responsibility for lessons, including scheduling, training and certifying volunteers, arranging for appropriate horses with the stable manager, getting necessary equipment, and evaluating their own and others’ lesson plans.
“In the last semester, they are all functioning as program directors,” said O’Shallie. “When they walk out the door, I’m very comfortable in recommending them for a job because they are now colleagues. They’re not students anymore.”
Megan (Westover) Giordano ’08 credits O’Shallie for giving her the skills to create a therapeutic horsemanship program for special needs children at Leg Up Farm (www.legupfarmorg) near York, Pa. “Every day when I reach into my toolbox for tools on how to solve a teaching problem or how to design a better program for one of my horses, or how to effectively lead the staff in my department, I am reaching for the tools that were created at Wilson.”
Knowledge aside, O’Shallie hopes graduates will also use their skills in humanitarian service and she leads by example. “I see the plight of individuals in Third World countries who have disabilities and there’s a lot that we can do,” she said.
Now president of the Federation of Horses in Education and Therapy International (HETI) - an organization devoted to collaboration between countries to promote philanthropic, scientific and educational equine assisted activities – O’Shallie invites students to join her at conferences all over the world. She has led workshops to create programs and train instructors in Taiwan, Turkey and Greece, as well as throughout the United States, where she is a certified master instructor with the Pennsylvania Council on Therapeutic Horsemanship (PACTH). She is also a master instructor and evaluator for the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH).
O’Shallie uses her own money and frequent flier miles, not to mention almost every school break and holiday, to do the work that drives her. “When you go somewhere and you see that there are maybe seven horses on an island, and they’re being used for the tourism trade, and the rest of the season they’re starving because they’re not bringing in any income, you have to do something about that. So we help design a therapeutic riding program so the horses can be paying for themselves in the off season.”
Back at home, O’Shallie continues to look for ways to inspire her students to take what they have learned and pay it forward. “They’re never going to make a great deal of money in this field. They may never have the monetary wealth to be great philanthropists,” she said. “But there are other ways to give back. Everything we do here is about education, continuing education, betterment, stewardship of the horse, and being mindful of the world around us.”