Harnessing the Power of Horses
Thirteen-year-old Jonathan came to Helping Hands Therapeutic Riding Center (HHTRC) totally shut down.
Jonathan, who didn't open up to people or animals, found refuge at this facility providing unique nonmedical-based treatment called hippotherapy. The goal for him was to learn how to trust and make real-life connections.
“It took six months, but one day we noticed Jonathan kissing his horse. Horses have an advantage over humans — they don't have an ego. There's definitely a relationship between horse and child that carries over into real life,” says Janellen Cappo, executive director of the Greenwood, Mo., Center.
It comes as no surprise that hippotherapy, a Greek term that literally means treatment with the help of a horse, is both effective and popular.
The American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) has defined hippotherapy as “a term that refers to the use of the movement of the horse as a strategy by physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists to address impairments, functional limitations and disabilities in patients with neuromusculoskeletal dysfunction. This strategy is used as part of an integrated treatment program to achieve functional outcomes.”
Cappo, along with her husband, Duane, decided to open a treatment facility in 2003. “We already had four horses and then once we opened HHTRC doors, 15 kids were knocking,” she remembers.
Today, the number of horses has grown to 15 and the number of clients (93 percent between the ages of 6-18) has vaulted to 125.
The Cappos live and work on the 15-acre fully accredited NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association) facility hosting an indoor riding arena, 14 stalls, a full kitchen and bathroom.
Clients come for the gentle therapy.
“The three-dimensional movement of the horse simulating the human gait pattern improves gross and fine motor skills, speech, respiratory function and self-awareness,” Cappo says.
Matching riders with horses
According to Cappo, “We choose our horses much like you would pick tires for a car. We make sure they are reliable, people-friendly and can meet the requirements of our industry.
“In addition, our horses have to be compliant; work with props, wheelchairs and ramps; pull a carriage; and learn to walk around or stay on the arena rail. It usually takes around 30 days to train our western-style pleasure horses.”
With more than 70 percent of the clientele demonstrating some form of autism, HHTRC looks for outcomes in all programs.
“If a child has a sensory issue, we find the right horse that matches the sensory need. If a child is self-stemming, for example, a horse with 1,400 walking rotations an hour is fulfilling that need for them. Further, there's a one-on-one therapist by the child's side always in communication with the parents.”
Serving with horsepower
Like Cappo, Brian and Joy Miller love horses and children and always wanted to own a farm. As first-time owners, they bought New Horizon Ranch, located in Rantoul, Kan., in 1999.
Joy found out about therapeutic riding programs while attending a horse expo in Wichita. “After watching a young girl ride with physical disabilities, I was sold on the idea of starting a nonprofit, therapeutic riding facility,” she explains.
That was four years ago. Now, as the Millers continue into their fourth year of operation, they look toward a future of expansion and have been working with the students in the interior design program at Johnson County Community College to design an arena, visitor center and stables.
Currently, New Horizon Ranch serves 31 children weekly in its outdoor arena with 12 horses and two therapists. “Since we're an outdoor facility, we run a 24-week program, March through October,” Brian says.
New Horizon Ranch offers hippotherapy sessions, recreational riding and equine-assisted learning on horses that have participated in a 60-day trial training period. Its program targets children with physical or cognitive disabilities. “We see all ages; however, the majority of our riders are between the ages of 4-16 years old, many of whom have autism,” he adds. Each rider is also teamed with an occupational, physical or speech therapist, a NARHA-certified riding instructor and two to three trained volunteers.
Similar to HHTRC, the Millers continue to marvel at the socialization and benefit their clients encounter.
“There's definitely a bond between horse and rider,” Brian says. “For example, one four-year-old boy had severe behavioral issues and was totally nonverbal when we first met him. Within two months, the parents reported the child was saying ‘horse.' As time progressed, the child began to talk at home.
“Another young child, wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy, began hippotherapy. With consistent work on the horse, the child's range of motion in his legs and trunk strength has improved dramatically.”
The programs foster self-confidence, trust, communication and problem-solving skills, leaving little doubt that all of the riding programs are filling a need for those at risk. Joy acknowledges, “The Ranch has fulfilled us far more than we could imagine. We love our horses and love reaching out to help families who in turn have become our extended family.”
Mark Alford also understands that phrase. By day, he is a television anchorman for WDAF Fox 4 News; on his own time, he turns his attention to his other passion: his South Kansas City horse stables.
Alford, owner of Lone Star Ranch, says, “I'm committed to the news, but I love horses and love working at the barn.”
Currently, he has 62 stalls, three arenas, three instructors and 54 horses, and hosts three horse shows annually, including a category for riders with disabilities.
“Since my wife, Leslie, and I have owned the ranch, we've continued to see how children and adults learn to compete and improve communication and often their behavior. Working with horses has that effect. So much so, we've discussed the possibility of one day offering therapeutic programs,” he says.
These riding centers have proven to be places of refuge, offering people hope and opportunity in a unique, nonclinical setting.
Cappo, the Millers and Alford all express the same sentiment: this work is a calling, simply doing what they love to do by helping people, animals and the community.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Kansas City Homes & Gardens.
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