By Martha Nodar

Oglethorpe University professor Tory Vornholt (at left) and other volunteers escort a rider taking part in a therapeutic ride at Chastain Horse Park.

Growing up in Virginia, Oglethorpe University accounting and business law professor Tory Vornholt always wanted to work with horses, but never had the opportunity until after she moved to Atlanta.

For the past four years, she has been volunteering at Chastain Horse Park as a walking companion to horseback riding children and adults with special needs.

“I keep the horse calm,” Vornholt said. “I either walk alongside the horse as a ‘side-walker’, assisting the rider with balance and support, or I lead the horse, maintaining the pace requested by the therapist to facilitate treatment.”

Known for offering riding lessons to the general public, the Chastain Horse Park in Buckhead is a nonprofit, therapeutic horseback riding center suited to help those with physical, emotional or developmental disabilities, such as brain or spinal injuries, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, autism or post-traumatic stress disorder, just to name a few.

They also have an outreach program that includes students for whom English is not the primary language, and homeless children. Horses for Heroes is a therapeutic riding program offered at no cost to members of the military.

Leslie Olsen, a registered nurse and therapeutic riding instructor at the horse park, said the goal of the treatment is to help riders improve self-confidence, motor skills, social skills and balance or muscle tone, among other benefits.

Scholarships may be offered to those who cannot afford the cost of the sessions, she said, but they are few and totally funded by donations. “We currently have a waiting list for scholarships,” she said.

Vornholt said she is one of many volunteers at the horse park and typically begins her shift by grooming and tacking the horse. That involves placing a specific saddle on a particular horse according to the therapist’s instructions. Sometimes a blanket is used as a saddle.

“I get to see firsthand the great strides riders make,” Vornholt said. “We have some who are paraplegic, mostly veterans. The movement of the horses helps to stimulate and develop the riders’ core muscles as well as the muscles in their legs.”

Olsen said riders with brain injuries tend to prefer riding Tennessee walking horses because they have a very smooth walk.

In addition to veterans, Vornholt works with children, such as 6-year-old Nina of Sandy Springs. Nina said she loves the horses at Chastain and is particularly fond of one named Pinky. Nina’s mother said she has seen a significant improvement in Nina’s upper body strength since she enrolled her in the horse program four years ago. She praises Vornholt for her dedication to her craft.

“You feel like family when you ride with Tory,” Nina’s mother said. “She is an incredible volunteer. She is very knowledgeable about the horses, and has a natural knack with the kids.”

Kathryn Perry, a Sandy Springs resident who is a longtime volunteer at the horse park, said she frequently teams up with Vornholt during sessions. Perry said Vornholt’s enthusiasm with the horses and the riders is very evident.

When she is not at the stables, Vornholt can be found walking beside her undergraduate students through the sidewalks of the Oglethorpe campus. She teaches traditional college students during the day and adults in the evenings.

For more information about the horse park or to make a donation, visit: www.chastainhorsepark.org.