Mecosta, Osceola County -- The Mecosta-Osceola 4-H Proud Equestrian Program (PEP) is tentatively set to begin in late April. It is one of the few 4-H based programs for riders with disabilities in the U.S., and is sponsored by the Michigan State University Extension Service.

Riders may include people with physical, developmental, emotional or multiple disabilities.

The Michigan State University Extension Service website states that with the help of trained volunteers, riders can improve balance, coordination, posture and muscle tone. Horseback riding can also help increase riders' self-esteem, self-confidence, discipline and social growth.

"This is a six-week program we do jointly with Mecosta County 4-H," said Jacob Stieg, 4-H coordinator with the Osceola County MSU Extension service.

Cran-Hill Ranch in Rodney hosts the program for the Mecosta-Osceola 4-H, he added.

They provide the horses and the MSU Extension rents them from the ranch.

Jillian Stiemke, horsemanship manager at Cran-Hill Ranch, said, "I think it is a great program. It really impacts the families that take part in that it allows the riders to increase their mobility, core strength, dexterity, and coordination, as well as just being a fun experience that they love to take part in."

Traci Chetter, PATH International Certified Therapeutic Trainer for Mecosta County PEP said, through the program, riders learn how to ride with their disabilities, while getting the physical and emotional therapeutic benefits. Riders also gain social skills by riding in groups, working side by side with volunteers, and spending time with their horse every week.

In 2019, the PEP program for Osceola and Mecosta counties was completely filled with 15 youth riders, Stieg said.

The program had three riding sessions with five youth riders in each group. Each youth rider required three volunteers - one to lead the horse, and two side walkers, he said.

"It is fun to watch these riders go from spring to fall," Stieg said. "A lot of them have issues with core strength and they might make it around the arena once at first, then by the end of the season they are able to make about 10 laps."

"That is a lot of work for our volunteers, but it is well worth it for the smiles," he added. "It is very rewarding how we all work together for one common goal."

Anyone interested can be involved in the program either as a youth or adult rider, or as a youth or adult volunteer. 4-H encourages youth to volunteer with this program and the rewards of volunteering cannot be put into words, Stieg said.

"Anyone that has helped in the past knows that this is a very rewarding experience," he added. "The riders and their parents are a pleasure to work with and appreciate the chance to actually ride a horse, something we may often take for granted."

"We can not do the program without our amazing volunteers that come to make a difference in our rider's lives, while getting some horse time for themselves, as well," Chetter added. "It is mutually therapeutic for the riders and the volunteers."

The program holds six week sessions in the spring and the fall each year, Chetter said.

The spring sessions are on Tuesday nights and begin in late April or early March, however this year's start date if tentative at this time, she added.

To participate as a rider, a medical release from a doctor is required, and space is limited, Steig said.

"The program can only take 15 riders at a time and they are currently full for the next session," Steig said. "If you are interested, you can contact me and get on a waiting list. If a spot opens up we can let you know."

Anyone interested in participating as a rider or as a volunteer may contact Stieg at (231) 832-6139, or at stieg@msu.edu.