It was early on a Saturday morning, a time usually reserved for sneaking in a few more hours of sleep.

But in the rolling hills of rural Mebane, children and their families were abuzz with excitement at the N.C. Therapeutic Riding Center as they gathered to meet up with some special four-legged friends.

Bachelor, a black Welsh Cross Gelding horse, stood nobly as Emma Steen, 6, of Pinehurst, wearing a smile a mile wide, tended to his coat—her brushstrokes small and gentle.

Emma said her favorite thing to do with Bachelor was making him trot.

“You hold onto the reins, and then you say, ‘Trot,’ ” she said. “And then they trot.”

There’s just something about a horse that touches the soul, and for Emma, the steed offers a welcome distraction from her diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a disease she’s battled since she was just 2 years old.

“She had two and half years of treatment, and she just actually celebrated her two-year anniversary of finishing up all of that,” Sarah Steen, Emma’s mom, said.

Barnstormers

The soothing experience of riding a horse for Emma and other children who are battling cancer is all part of a new program at NCTRC.

Barnstormers gives a chance to children fighting the disease to get away from the clinical setting and enjoy an experience many have never had. The center’s effort started in spring 2014 and offers an opportunity for the kids to learn how to ride and groom a horse.

“Our past executive director was Anna Baggett, and she and Dr. [Stuart] Gold from Pediatric Oncology at UNC, together dreamed this program up,” Bonnie Yankaskas with NCTRC said.

Yankaskas, along with Lissa Lutz and Margie Muenzer, worked to pull Barnstormers together, and since May, children and teenagers diagnosed with cancer have come to NCTRC with their families to learn—hands on—about horses.

“The purpose of Barnstormers is to give these children that are dealing with hospital visits and pain and all the other things that come with cancer a chance to have a day where they don’t have to think about anything,” Yankaskas said. “That’s what happens when you get on a horse; you can’t think about anything else. … For the families, it’s a real outing for them.”

The youngsters learn how to groom, tack and, of course, ride a horse. During the riding portion, volunteers and instructors help lead the horses and the kids around an indoor and outdoor arena for different games. The session is capped off with a trail ride around the NCTRC farm. Siblings are also encourage to participate in non-riding activities like helping with stable chores.

Kids being kids

Lutz said Barnstormers lets the children forget about their worries and focus on something enjoyable and unique.

“For this group in particular I think it’s just a way to be out of their clinical environment ’cause a lot of them spend a lot of time in the hospital and in clinics,” she said. “And this is something they can kind of put everything behind them and just be kids and just be on a horse and just enjoy a beautiful day and the animals. … It’s just a fun experience for them, and then they get to learn a little bit about horses, as well.”

Yankaskas said so far the program has been promoted at UNC Children’s Hospital—a collaborator on Barnstormers—and currently the sessions are limited to only eight children.

“Once we get up and really comfortable with the program, we would like to expand,” she said.

When Barnstormers does grow, Yankaskas said the center would also like to reach out to other hospitals and eventually develop the program further—possibly to the point of offering a regular horse riding class to children with cancer.

Barnstormers relies on money raised through fundraisers and donations as well as a group of dedicated volunteers.

The bond between horse and human

Emma admits she was a little nervous when she first got on Bachelor.

“Well, I just felt a little wobbly at first,” she said.

But soon enough, especially after her first trip to NCTRC in June, Emma fell in love with the gentle stallion.

“She was really excited to come back and do it,” Emma’s dad Phillip Steen said. “There was a little separation anxiety when we left the last time.”

Sarah Steen agreed.

“Yes, she cried the whole way home because she missed Bachelor,” she said. “Then she proceeded to draw 10 pictures of Bachelor.”

Sarah Steen said Barnstormers has helped Emma build on her life experiences.

“She overcame a little bit of fear to get on the horse,” she said. “That’s always good to see her do that. She’s done that her whole life; but this offers an experience, fun for the family, quality time.”