Washington Township horse lover strives to share therapeutic benefits

| Monday, Nov. 12, 2012, 8:58 a.m.

As a child, Shanna Williams wasn't particularly interested in horses.

Now, she can't imagine life without them.

“I wasn't a little girl growing up saying ‘I want a pony,' ” she said.

That all changed when, as a pre-teen, the Washington Township resident went to a horse camp.

“You know when you find something you're just meant to do? That's how it felt for me,” Williams, 22, said.

She went at the suggestion of her mother, Deborah Pelkey, who had spent time with horses growing up.

“She thought that I would enjoy it because she did. Of course, I loved it, and I started taking lessons.”

From those lessons grew not only a desire to share her love of horses with others, but a desire to share the therapeutic benefits that they can offer through horse-assisted therapy programs.

Such programs teach those with different cognitive, emotional or physical abilities how to ride horses. Proponents of the therapy say it improves the lives of those facing everything from emotional disorders to physical disabilities.

Oftentimes, according to Williams, children in such programs are able to bond in a unique way with the horses they're working with.

“They can tell how you're feeling. They can adapt to that feeling,” she said.

“Animals are totally unbiased. They accept you as you are. That animal is not going to judge them, and they are going to just love them and accept them for who they are.”

She has seen the benefits of that relationship firsthand, not only with her three horses, Tekoa, Divine and Josiah, but as part of horse riding therapy programs.

At about the age of 14, she began volunteering and working with a horse therapy program at Victory Stables in Washington Township, starting out as a side walker — a person who walks alongside the horse, helping the rider to maintain balance.

She moved up into a position where she worked with riders in a more direct way. Her experience with Victory Stables' and other programs led her to realize that she would one day want to provide horse-assisted therapy.

“That left such a lasting impression on me, more than anything,” she said.

Williams' efforts to pursue a degree in psychology that will lead to that goal have earned her scholarship support throughout her college career.

In October, the Penn State New Kensington senior was the guest speaker at PSNK's annual Scholarship Reception. The event recognizes scholarship recipients and donors and brings them together to meet one another.

This year, she received the Gregory and Xenia Kotyk Memorial Trustee Family Scholarship, which helps with the cost of her education.

“I just think that it's such a tremendous help to the students, especially the ones like me that wouldn't be in the best position to fund their education,” she said of the scholarship.

A member of the school's honors program, Williams has made the dean's list each semester. She volunteers at the Alle-Kiski Hope Center and will soon begin an internship with Family Services of Western Pennsylvania in New Kensington.

Williams hopes to attend graduate school in the Pittsburgh region and prepare to one day have her own horse-assisted therapy practice. Her plan?

“For me, it's to be right here, in the Alle-Kiski Valley, doing what I love doing and being with my family and my horses,” she said.

Julie Martin is a freelance writer.

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