Saddling up for a good cause


Senior Kayla Royce volunteers her time helping kids at BITS ETCS (photo courtesy of Kayla Royce).

Summer Pescinski, Contributor

It is a bitter cold Saturday morning, and the frozen gravel pops underneath the tires of senior Kayla Royce’s white Ford Escape as she pulls up next to the snow-covered barns.  Royce shivers in the driver’s seat as she watches the wind whip across the arena, dusting the frozen mud with sparkling powder.  She glances at the thermometer above the dash.  Ten degrees.  And shivers again. 

Royce could easily turn around and go home, return to the comfort and warmth of her bed.  Yet something stops her.  It is the same thing that got her up at 7 a.m. to make the 30 minute drive, the same drive she’s made every Saturday morning for three years.  

“I know that it’s cheesy, but I just couldn’t imagine spending my Saturday morning’s any other way,” Royce says.

Back in the Saddle Equine Therapy Center (BITS ETC) is an equine facility located in Hopkinton, N.H. that aims to help children and adults with disabilities overcome challenges through horseback riding.  Royce works exclusively with disabled children during these Saturday morning lessons.  “It helps teach them the importance of riding because it works your body both mentally and physically which can be a real challenge for some of these individuals,” says Royce.

After getting out of her car, Royce walks to the barns and greets the Saturday morning volunteers and the instructors.  She then makes her way to the horses and prepares for the first lesson by lunging a horse and tacking them up appropriately.  

Royce began volunteering at BITS ETC in the spring of 2019 as a freshman in high school.  “To be honest, I actually started volunteering there for selfish reasons,” Royce says.  After having stopped riding at the barn where she took her own lessons, she wanted to find another opportunity to work with horses.  “I also needed community service hours, so my Mom found BITS ETC online.  The rest is history,” she says.

During the first lesson, Royce leads the horse that a child is riding.  She is careful to go slow and steady so she is not to startle the child or the horse.  Comfortable and confident, Royce has been doing this a long time, and it is clear.  She strokes the horse as they circle the arena.  The child perched atop the horse beams with delight, and Royce can’t help but smile, too.

When she first went to BITS ETC, Royce originally thought she would just perform barn chores and exercise the horses, but she wound up getting into doing lessons with the kids which she says “has been fun.” 

Although Royce typically controls the horses while the instructor works with the kids, she has still managed to make some connections with the kids as well.  Royce has been working with a specific boy since her time at BITS ETC began.  The young boy has autism and cannot talk, but slowly the staff and volunteers have taught him sign language for the commands that the horse uses. “He is actually able to give the horse commands like ‘pull’, ‘walk’ and ‘trot’,” says Royce, who is one of the longest volunteers at the barn.

Royce says that watching the children overcome their own barriers has been one of the best parts of her experience.  “The most rewarding part is seeing kids progress through their goals,” she says.

Of course, this type of service does not come without its challenges. 

“There are ups and downs,” Royce says. “It is especially difficult when the kids don’t have their heads in the space to be riding.”  She says that sometimes the kids aren’t paying attention and get easily distracted, which is just in the nature of teaching children.  

Between lessons, Royce does barn chores: feeds the horses, mucks out the stalls and fills up the water troughs.  When she finishes, she lunges and tacks up another horse to prepare for the next lesson. 

“In all places, I have made bonds,” Royce says.  “I’ve made bonds with a lot of people and even with the animals.” 

After Royce’s fourth and final lesson, it is now well into the afternoon.  Royce leads the horses back into their stalls.  She makes sure they have feed and water, and says goodbye to the Saturday volunteers and walks towards her car.  The afternoon sun beats down on her as she wipes her hair from her glistening forehead.  Her cheeks are flushed, and her breath vaporizes in the cold air.  

Before she gets into her car, she stops and looks at the crimson barns behind her.  The scene is serene.  The white fence rolls over the snowy pasture.  The horses flick their tails as their hooves click in the stalls.  Icicles drip from the roof above and catch sun as they splash on the frozen earth.  A smile tugs at Kayla Royce’s lips.    

“I really like the positive, peaceful environment,” Royce says. “I just enjoy it there, which is why I keep going.”