Therapy horses inspire IR education student to gold

Horseback riding may conjure images of cowboy boots or sleek horse shows. But Riley Murray is also teaching people that horses make excellent therapeutic partners.

Having just completed her junior year at Indian River High School, Murray created an award-winning presentation inspired by the work she saw at Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding, which uses equine therapy for people with physical and emotional challenges.

“Animals are healing … and for those people who can’t walk, a horse’s gait is almost similar to how a person walks, and it just improves muscle functions,” Murray said, “because they’re using their legs in a way they couldn’t before, they’re using their hands in a way they weren’t.”

After shadowing the SDTR staff for eight weeks, Murray reported on the experience for her 2019 Educators Rising state competition, earning a gold award and a trip to the national conference in Dallas, Texas, from June 22 to 25.

The Educators Rising organization is designed to help future teachers learn about the job and chart a course forward. Competitive events allow students to develop and showcase their teaching skills in public speaking, lesson planning, writing, creativity and more.

Based in Milton, the SDTR has a broad clientele: people with disabilities, veterans with trauma, at-risk youth and more, including some Howard T. Ennis School students.

Inheriting her mother’s love for horses, Murray has been riding since about age 3, competing both individually and on a team. She knew SDTR would be a worthy and unique topic for her Educators Rising event — a 5- to 7-minute oral presentation for a judging panel.

“Riley got gold, meaning she scored above 90 points. … Up to five can go to nationals, but she’s the only person in region who earned gold and enough points to qualify,” said teacher and club advisor Megan Hines. “We’re very proud of her.”

Murray’s event was “Exploring Support Career Services.” She won the Gold Bell for earning the most points in that category.

“It’s not a core subject teacher, like a science teacher, a math teacher,” said Hines. “It’s an educator that supports regular core content teachers: … an administrator, a para-educator, a speech pathologist.”

Murray was first inspired by watching the horseback lessons of a friend who typically uses a wheelchair.

“Watching her ride, you never would have thought she’d be able to” work around certain issues with her muscles. “But when she rides, they go away, because it works the muscles.”

The farm also helps people escape more clinical settings, bringing fresh air and large, gentle creatures with distinct personalities. Riding horses can increase independence and freedom of movement, while working with horse can build patience, communication skills, emotional control and self-discipline.

Participants must apply for the program, and scholarships are available. Murray said she was impressed by the volunteers’ dedication and very individualized lesson plans.

“They’re just amazing,” she said.

Details about Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding are available by calling (302) 644-1920 or online at

Back-to-back awards


Murray is the only IRHS student to have earned a place to nationals, in both 2018 and 2019. In addition to making her own presentation, she will attend various workshops, including a speech by the U.S. Teacher of the Year.

“I just remember I came back so motivated,” she said of the 2018 conference.

For her future career, Murray said she hopes to educate people in a cultural way, perhaps working in a museum. Her parents are both educators as well.

Officially in the IRHS music pathway, Murray also squeezed education classes into her schedule for 11th and 12th grades.

“Riley’s a very hardworking student,” said Hines. “She cares very much about her academics, so she took my class — it’s an elective, it’s not even part of her pathway. … She always went above and beyond on her projects.”

At Indian River, Educators Rising — and the actual pathway courses — have only finished their second year. Next autumn, upperclassmen will take Foundations of Curriculum & Instruction, “where students really get a taste of teaching. This is where they’re really learn … teaching, instead of the background of teaching,” Hines said.

Anyone wishing to donate to future competitions can send a check to “IRHS Educators Rising” at 29772 Armory Rd.; Dagsboro, DE 19939.

To represent Indian River School District, Riley and Hines will travel with Sussex Central High School’s gold award winner, junior Mackenzie Payne, and her advisor, Anna Ruggerio.

Three other IR students earned bronze awards at the Educators Rising state conference: Brynn McCabe, Caylee Schmidt and Amber Zellers, all for K-3 Children’s Literature.

Other local winners attend Sussex Technical High School: K-3 Children’s Literature: Gold Bell to Celina Lombardi of Millsboro and Jessica Blatzheim of Ocean View; Pre-K Children’s Literature, gold ranking to Page Athey of Selbyville; Ethical Dilemma, silver ranking to Haley Marvel of Millsboro, Faith Bruette of Dagsboro and Olivia Hudson of Millsboro; and Educators Rising Moment, silver ranking to Charleigh Redington of Millsboro.


By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter