Rubbing her hands in delight, Kitty Stalsburg asks a group of children if they want to play a word game — as if nothing would bring her more joy. The kids, three siblings, brighten up, and begin to put together words that tie into their upcoming horseback riding lesson: the different parts of the saddle.
It is a muted January day at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding facility in Old Lyme, the sun barely slipping through the film of winter sky, and Stalsburg, who has been the executive director for five years, is teaching one of her few riding classes. Most of the time she is busy running the place where she has worked in various capacities since 1985.
The center is dedicated to helping people with disabilities learn to ride and care for horses. Working with horses can help participants improve confidence, balance, strength and muscle tone and provide rewarding social and emotional experiences. It serves a wide variety of riders — from those with emotional or cognitive challenges, to those who can't walk without assistance.
Once the kids are warmed up, they enter the immaculate indoor riding ring, mounting the horses on a platform and assisted by walkers. The lessons begin and the horses' breath billows out in filigrees of silvery steam.
Stalsburg guides the lesson in a cheerful manner that never lets up — finding ways to encourage the children. The three boys, Matthew Scotella, 10, and his twin brothers, Andrew and James, 8, have been coming for years as therapy.
But getting the boys to ride took great patience. Matthew, who has been riding since he was three years old, was terrified of the facility at first because of the cats – never mind the horses, said his mother, Jennifer Curley of Westbrook. It was Stalsburg who was instrumental in finally coaxing him — through a series of steps — onto a Shetland pony named Smokey, not much larger than a dog.
At that time, Stalsburg was program director, and the first thing Curley noticed about her was that she "got it." Not many people understand the complexity of issues surrounding her son's disability.
"I don't know anyone as in tune to him, but she makes it seem so effortless. It's in her nature — horses and people," said Curley, noting her kids will tell Stalsburg things they won't tell other people — like when they become fatigued, or that the gel pad under the horse — seeming imperceptible to many, was acutely felt by Matthew and became a stumbling block to riding. It was Stalsburg who helped him see how important the pad was to the horse, and opened him up to the horse's comfort.
The caring and sensitivity Stalsburg has shown her children, Curley says, is extended to all High Hopes participants.
"She cares about anyone who comes through the door. This place is her heart. She is warm and lovely."
The woman who recruited Stalsburg to volunteer at High Hopes, honorary trustee and board chair emertii Judy Lightfoot, has an enduring respect and affection for her.
"I have to say she was probably born to do just what she is doing," said Lightfoot, who has known Stalsburg since she was 14 years old, first meeting her when she was riding at the same barn with her daughters. "I can remember Kitty was there working, taking care of the animals. She just sees what needs to be done — it's instinctive. She understands all aspects of what we do — from the horses to the riders."
Stalsburg began at High Hopes as a volunteer in 1984 — long before the present High Hopes facility was purchased — back when the organization was nomadic and called itself the Lower Connecticut Valley Educational Riding Association. Stalsburg quickly became certified to be an instructor and then became barn manager before serving as program director for 17 years.
Raised in Deep River, Stalsburg is a resident of Lyme, where she lives with her husband. Her grown daughter is currently studying abroad in London.
This past July, Stalsburg participated in a program at Harvard, "Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management." Stalsburg said that attending the Yale conference was gratifying, as she views therapeutic riding as beginning to gain wider acceptance. She sees more integration of therapeutic riding in areas like physical therapy and treatment for sensory processing disorders.
"She's probably one of the best people in the field of therapeutic riding," said Sara Qua, director of development at High Hopes. "People come from all over the world to be instructed by her and to be trained by her. Her strength is her passion for what she does, and she can speak about it so eloquently, and others detect the integrity in her — and in my opinion that is what you want in an executive director, you couldn't ask for anything better — she is the best spokesperson."
Stalsburg is a certified instructor of therapeutic riding through an organization called PATH – Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. High Hopes was the first therapeutic riding facility to acquire the credential from PATH to teach the three levels of therapeutic riding instruction. To date, High Hopes has trained more than 170 instructors from the United States and abroad.
High Hopes' reputation has blossomed in the region, and has also received national attention when it hosted the Equestrian Special Olympics in 1995. High Hopes is now a destination for many. In addition to its small staff, the organization attracts more than 600 volunteers and serves an average of 230 participants a week.
Stalsburg speaks with admiration of her students, and of the strong community volunteerism and support that keeps the center going.
"The gifts that return to us every day never end," Stalsburg said.
"People love coming here — High Hopes is a place of unconditional acceptance."