Walk on

Demand grows for therapeutic riding programs, and Minnesota responds

As the sun sets over the stables, Brendon Kelly confidently rides a calm horse in the familiar evening light. Joan Berg walks with Brendon, who has myotonic muscular dystrophy, at her home and riding facility in East Farmington, Wisc. Berg is the spirited executive director of River Valley Riders, a program that launched three therapeutic riding facilities only eight years ago.

Therapeutic riding is horse-assisted therapy for physically and mentally handicapped children and adults. Berg explains that the therapy improves strength, balance, and posture and is known to also improve social, verbal, physical, and sensory skills, even after one or two rides. “[Participants] may not be able to do track and field,” says Berg, “but they can ride a horse.”

“The therapy helps Brendon maintain his muscle tone that would otherwise deteriorate, and gives him confidence knowing that riding a horse is something he can do,” says his mother, Gina Kelly. “He’s been riding for six or seven years now. It’s like a sport for him.”

The River Valley Riders program serves 150 riders a year, with about 90 on hold. “Our waiting list is huge,” says Berg.

In the summer of 2007, River Valley Riders received a $50,000 grant from the Fred C. & Katherine B. Anderson Foundation. Berg hopes to use the money to purchase 40 acres of land for an additional east metro facility but is still struggling to find affordable land. Once they have a location, they will still need to pay to construct the riding facility and for operating costs.

“What I really wish is that someone would come out and donate the land,” says Berg. With another facility, River Valley Riders could expand their services and cut their waiting list in half.

While their search for land goes on, Berg continues to help as many riders as she can. They operate out of facilities in Lake Elmo and Chisago City, Minn., as well as Berg’s home in East Farmington.

You can see the difference it makes in the shining faces like 5-year-old Isabelle White, who sits cheerfully with her mom and sister after her ride. Isabelle has overall weak muscle tone and significant scoliosis, but she is not shy. “Isabelle has so much fun riding,” says her mother, Tammy White, “she doesn’t even realize it’s therapy.”

How it works

Tom Bezek, the executive director of another therapeutic riding program, We Can Ride, says, “There are many, many more people that could benefit from therapy, but we don’t advertise because we already have more than 80 people on our waiting list.”

Noah Sieber was on the We Can Ride waiting list for a year. He is a nonverbal young boy with autism and low muscle tone. “It’s difficult for him to do things and enjoy them,” says his mother, Diane Sieber, “but when he’s on the horse, you can really see how excited he is.”

Three volunteers and an occupational therapist march Noah around the University of Minnesota’s indoor Equine facility. Noah uses his own sign language and an electronic assistive speaking device called a Dynavox. The device shows images of words and phrases that resound when pressed to allow Noah to communicate during his hippotherapy session.

Kathy Simcox, therapy manager and sensory integration specialist for We Can Ride, works with Noah, aiming for age-appropriate skills. “We focus specifically on his vestibular and proprioceptive systems, which are sensory systems that tend to be underdeveloped in autism.”

She explains that the vestibular system is the powerhouse of sensations. It provides information regarding the position of the body and head in the relationship to gravity, establishing balance and position in space. The proprioceptive system regulates muscle and joint information, recalibrating movement to create balance, body awareness, and motor skills.

During hippotherapy, the constant circular rhythm of the moving horse allows Noah’s brain to process stimuli in his sensory systems, says Simcox. If Noah shows signs of getting overstimulated, she will hand him stretchy discs to equalize the information to his muscles and joints while he is on the horse. Simcox maintains eye contact with Noah during the session, helping him stay focused and aware of his surroundings. The riding helps all of these sensory systems stay in balance without Noah even being aware that he’s in therapy.

“It’s fun for him, and the progress is quicker than [with] other therapies,” says Simcox. “In six or seven one-hour sessions, he has made huge gains.”

The encouraging faces of volunteers smile up at Noah as they walk beside the horse. His uncle, Gary Seiber, enthusiastically cheers from the outside ring as they trot by for a photo op. It is obvious that Noah is the star of the show today. Sieber says it is important for the therapist to assess his nephew’s reactions, making sure he is not overstimulated during the session. Each time Simcox slows the horse to check on Noah, he smiles and waves his hands in the air excitedly, urging the volunteers to keep the horse moving. As he presses a picture of a horse on his Dynavox, a voice shouts, “Walk on, walk on.”

Ashley Goetz is an intern with Minnesota Parent.

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