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Published July 07, 2009, 11:13 PM

Therapeutic horse-riding group
plans site in Afton, Minn.

The highlight of Luka Hamer’s week is “Dixie Day.” Each Thursday afternoon, Luka and her family drive 50 miles from Minneapolis to East Farmington, Wis., so she can ride Dixie, a Haflinger horse at Achin’ Back Acres.

By: Mary Divine, St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — The highlight of Luka Hamer’s week is “Dixie Day.”

Each Thursday afternoon, Luka and her family drive 50 miles from Minneapolis to East Farmington, Wis., so she can ride Dixie, a Haflinger horse at Achin’ Back Acres.

Luka, 7, has Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome, a rare genetic condition characterized by short stature, developmental disabilities, distinctive facial features and broad thumbs and first toes.

Riding Dixie has helped improve Luka’s self-esteem, muscle tone and sensory integration, said her mother, Leila DeLance.

It’s also helped her learn the days of the week.

“She’s got a horse sticker on every Thursday of the month,” DeLance said. “She’s always wondering, ‘Is this Dixie Day?’ All day long, she relates to Dixie. ... When she goes to bed, she thinks about Dixie going to bed. We went and got her hair cut today, and she was wondering about Dixie getting her hair cut.”

Luka began the therapy riding program at River Valley Riders on April 28. Program par-ticipation is limited to the spring, summer and fall, weather permitting, and DeLance al-ready is worried about Luka missing Dixie Days this winter.

“The one thing with these kids is consistency — a schedule is really important,” she said. “If she could be in there all year-round, it would be that much more transformational.”

Someday soon, River Valley Riders officials hope, Luka will be able to ride all year long.

River Valley Riders recently purchased 38 acres in Afton and is raising money to build a heated indoor riding arena and stables. The nonprofit organization wants to expand its pro-gram that offers regular horseback and carriage riding to children and adults with disabili-ties or neurological impairments. Joan Dorle Berg, the program’s director, cites research that shows horseback riding to be physically, mentally and emotionally beneficial. Students feel joy and bond with their horses, she said.

“It helps in communication, with balance and with social skills,” said Berg, who teaches adapted physical education to children. “It also helps to build endurance. It’s hard work. The body is going forwards and backwards, side to side and up and down, all at the same time. Plus, you’re outside with the beautiful weather, so there are all these opportunities to see things and smell things.”

The program began in 2000 and offers riding four nights a week. Because it has no real home of its own, it operates out of three locations: Berg and her husband, Roger, donate space on their Achin’ Back Acres; space is donated at the Rick-a-Shay Ranch in Chisago City; and the group rents riding time at the Washington County Fairgrounds in Baytown Town-ship.

The program is popular — more than 100 people are on a waiting list, hoping to join the 45 regular participants and 92 volunteers. Class sizes are limited, in part because of the need to haul horses to and from the three locations. If the organization had its own arena, Berg said, horses could be boarded there. River Valley Riders uses about 20 horses overall, about six a night. Most are transported to sites weekly, a big expense. An arena and stable would solve a lot of those problems, Berg said.

With the land purchase accomplished, the next steps are to raise $80,000 to install a drive-way, parking lot and outdoor arena. Berg said she hopes River Valley Riders will be able to begin operating out of its new location next spring.

Then there will be a capital campaign to raise $1 million for the indoor riding arena.

“This is ongoing therapy for the kids. It’s not just a pony ride, and we’d like to see it con-tinue,” she said. “Our mission is for that child or adult to have a better life — to see things from the top of a horse that we don’t see. We’re walking along, plodding in the sand and the mud, and there they are, gliding along on the back of a horse.”

Luka loves gliding along on the back of Dixie, DeLance said.

“It’s really great for her self-esteem, because she’s so proud of herself when she gets up there,” DeLance said. “It’s so cool.”