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Horse Power

Marcy and Art Laver ’64 saddle up to help people with disabilities

Creating a therapeutic riding program on 12 acres of pastureland near Swarthmore might seem like an overly ambitious retirement plan. But to Art Laver ’64 and his wife, Marcy, it was a perfect prospect.

After all, the couple had spent 25 years breeding, training, and showing Arabian horses while Art maintained his career as a hospital OB-GYN doctor and Marcy as a nurse in labor and delivery. 

Marcy, who had long been interested in how riding benefits disabled persons, earned instructor certification from PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship). The Lavers incorporated All Riders Up as a nonprofit, with Marcy as executive director and Art as director of operations. They welcomed their first student in January 2009. 

Now they have 15 students, 11 horses, two donkeys, 40 volunteers, and four instructors. Two of the instructors are volunteers, including Art’s daughter Rebecca Laver Farrell, whose mother is Dede Gresham’65.

Marcy trains the volunteers and is on PATH’s national certification subcommittee for Equine Specialists in Mental Health and Learning. According to Art, “her greatest interest is equine-facilitated psychotherapy for abused kids, veterans, and others with PTSD.

“It is heartwarming to see the progress in our students through their interaction with the horses,” he says. “After a while, a nonverbal autistic child starts to speak to the horse, then to people. A student who came to us on a walker, barely ambulatory following surgery for a malignant brain tumor, after a year was walking and riding independently, to the amazement of his physical therapists.”

Not all of the Lavers’ sensitive steeds are Arabians, but after years of raising the breed, which is known for its agility and intelligence, they knew Arabs would be the perfect partners for riders ages 4 to 74 with a wide range of physical, cognitive and psychological conditions—from spinal injuries to autism.

The horses seem to have an instinctive gentleness with young children, sensing their emotions. Even the most unreachable child responds when a horse affectionately encircles her with its neck and inclines its head toward her.

Catie Miller, 9, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental delay, and bipolar disorder is one of the regular riders. Catie rarely expresses her feelings, but after bonding with Potter, the Lavers’ Tennessee walker pony, she wrote, “When I ride him I feel like the deep calm lake. When I ride him I feel like a bird singing in the bright morning air. My heart feels free and light when I ride him.”  

Riding lessons stretching muscle and mind occur in the couple’s covered arena, with sides open to a view of trees and a pond.

“Our small size and peaceful environment are especially suited to riders who may have experienced trauma or mental health issues or who may have difficulty concentrating or being in a public setting,” Art says. 

All Riders Up has inspired donations of time and money, including a hydraulic lift that transfers students from wheelchair to horse, and a sensory trail, particularly helpful to students with autism spectrum disorders. Swarthmore’s Delta Upsilon brothers and their friends are among the volunteers.

A new certification enables the Lavers to work with wounded warriors seeking physical or psychological healing. One longtime regular is Vietnam veteran Jim Kendrick. With a hydraulic lift to move him from wheelchair to horseback, he improves his balance and mobility atop Daisy, a 2,000-pound Belgian mare. 

Kendrick can attest to the power of horses. So can Art, who likes to quote Winston Churchill: “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of man,” and—“woman and child,” he adds.