Cleaning up horse manure in your first week of college might not be at the top of the list of priorities for most college freshmen.
But a group of 12 young women in Cal Poly’s Week of Welcome Group 258 couldn’t have been happier doing just that on Thursday.
As their five male counterparts opted to nap back at the dorms, the women participated in the cleanup project at an Atascadero ranch as part of their community service.
The work helped a nonprofit organization called Partners in Equestrian Therapy, which provides therapeutic horseback riding for children and adults with disabilities.
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Other Cal Poly WOW groups are visiting the program this week to conduct cleanup, tacking and horse exercise activities.
“I’m planning to go into occupational therapy, and I didn’t even know about equestrian therapy,” said Kelsey Nalder, a freshman child development major. “It’s nice to get exposed to something like this and do what we can to help.”
More than 5,000 new students split up into more than 300 WOW groups are participating in a variety of activities this week, including tree plantings, beach cleanups, and work at food banks.
The projects, along with meetings on maintaining good academic habits and safe and responsible behaviors, help the new students transition into the university. The orientation program dates to the 1950s.
“This is the first time that we’ve been off-campus this week, and I think it’s a great way for them to get to know their community,” said Sophie Marsh, a sophomore WOW leader. “I remember all the feelings they are going through being nervous, trying to make friends and wondering what college will be like. But we’ve already seen them start to click and build friendships and have fun.”
At Rancho del Rio, which is owned and operated by paraplegic Cindy Nacey, the equestrian therapy program is run by Melanie Williams-Mahan.
“Melanie has the type of personality that makes everyone just love coming here and riding,” Nacey said.
Nacey doesn’t ride after breaking her neck in a car accident as a Cal Poly student many years ago because the therapy isn’t beneficial to her.
However, she is a strong supporter of the program.
“The horses just have a ball with all the different riders as well,” Nacey said. “They have a way of knowing who’s on them and how to handle that.”
Riders aged 3 to 61 with autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and other disabilities go to the ranch to learn how to ride with gentle-natured horses such as the program’s 29-year-old Norwegian Fjord blond mare, Etena, who sports a Mohawk haircut.
“It’s amazing to watch the riders’ eyes light up,” Williams-Mahan said. “I had one girl say, ‘Now, I know what it’s like to walk.’ We all had tears in our eyes. But for her, it was sheer delight.”
The program serves about 25 riders, who typically come once a week or bimonthly.
Some of the clients are longtime riders who have more advanced abilities, including cutting and jumping skills.
With small children, program coordinators either accompany them on the horse or guide them by walking alongside.
Over the years, Cal Poly students have played an active role in games, such as one where they pretend to be cows and the program participants have to round them up, Williams-Mahan said.
Some of the WOW students will get a chance to see a demonstration of the riding this weekend at the ranch.
Cal Poly freshman Erin Champ, who comes from the San Diego area, said WOW has already clued her into a sense of community at the university.
“The school spirit here is really strong,” Champ said. “That’s something I didn’t have in high school. I also feel like in high school, people’s motivations are at different levels, but here we’re all about the same. We all want to be here, and that feeling is contagious.”