Children With Disabilities Benefit From Therapeutic Horseback Riding

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Maddie shows off the paint she and Raku will display during the Painted Pony Parade at summer camp.
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Madisyn and Diamond are ready to ride.
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Riders with any disability are welcome at Heartland.
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Heartland Therapeutic Riding is located in Stilwell, Kansas.

Five decades ago, people might not have thought the idea of a child with autism, Down syndrome or sight impairment riding horses was a good idea. Today, it’s quite the contrary. Throughout the world, the healing power of horseback riding has impacted children who initially might have had inner feelings of defeat or doubts about self-worth.

“The beauty and magic of the partnership between a horse and its rider has been celebrated as a symbol of dynamic unity, and as an emotional connection that helps heal and energize,” says Jennifer MaGee, executive director of Heartland Therapeutic Riding (HTR) in Stilwell, Kansas.

Yet, one can only completely understand and comprehend that statement when seeing the magic come to life at the facility.

“At Heartland Therapeutic Riding, we know that a vital sense of freedom is experienced when riding a horse,” MaGee says, and she has witnessed the feeling firsthand.

“Doctors said my son would never walk when he was a baby, but a woman in Dallas insisted that with therapeutic riding he would, and he does. My son is 19 now, walks on his own, admittedly at uneven gaits, but he graduated from high school, and is happy, largely in part to horses,” she says. “So, obviously I am a believer, and the main reason I work here is to help others find out and experience the beauty that can come from therapeutic riding.”

Founded in 1977, and lead by a volunteer board of directors, Heartland Therapeutic Riding is designed to assist individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, spinal bifida, autism, developmental delays, Down syndrome, emotional disorders, sight and hearing impairments, and neuromuscular and orthopedic challenges.

The horse’s rhythmic movement and the rider’s response to the gait combine to form a symbiotic partnership that creates a powerful opportunity to increase potential for personal fulfillment,” MaGee says. “Because the horses are in sync with each rider’s slightest movement and respond accordingly, the horses foster an incomparable level of teamwork and a sense of accomplishment with their human charges.”

Heartland’s Beginnings

HTR began when horseback riding was suggested to Jean Baum as a form of therapy for her then 9-month-old daughter, whom doctors said might not walk. Baum investigated the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Minnesota, and she was convinced that Kansas City, Kansas, needed such a program. However, no one was willing to take on the project. They were unnerved by the prospect of having children with disabilities on their property, much less having those children riding horses.

In 1981, Heartland Therapeutic Riding purchased 27 acres of land, and the program grew under Baum’s initial leadership.

In the 1990s, real estate developers expressed interest in the property. Eventually the board decided to sell the property and move, which enabled HTR to construct a facility designed specifically for therapeutic riding. A formal dedication took place in 1998, MaGee says.

HTR is recognized as a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) Premiere Accredited Center, one of the first of now more than 800 such centers across the United States.

“We have 86 riders, and about 130 volunteers who assist our staff each week Heartland Therapeutic Riding is in session,” MaGee says. Classes are not conducted during the cold of winter or the summer heat.

“Each individual is evaluated before being accepted into Heartland’s programs, and they are accepted with their doctor’s written permission. Final determination of eligibility is made by the Heartland staff,” MaGee says, adding that the facility does not limit participation on the ability to pay, and Heartland has a limited amount of scholarship funding for clients unable to pay the full fee.

How It Works

Horseback riding is one of few sports that uses the body’s entire muscle system, thus helping to strengthen muscles, which in turn frequently results in improved balance and coordination, according to MaGee.

Classes help the rider to develop cognitive, behavioral, psychological and physical skills needed to reach a successful riding level. Therapeutic sports riding is available for both children and adults with disabilities. “Both programs utilize motor planning, cognitive planning and sensory integration in the design and implementation of each class session,” MaGee says.

An early intervention using a horse as a treatment modality is one part of the program. The horse provides movement that helps stimulate different systems, while a physical or occupational therapist uses her or his skills to work with young children with a wide variety of impairments and diagnoses, MaGee says.

“Hippotherapy (hippo is the Greek word for horse) is a different type of therapy and is offered as an additional or stand-alone treatment,” she says. “The action of the horse’s back simulates the action of walking in the rider’s pelvis. Horseback riding uses all of the muscles in the body.” 

What It’s All About

“Results are nothing short of miraculous with riders at Heartland. Not only the physical improvements, but the calming effect of horses, the relationships between horses and riders are amazing; the children are amazing,” MaGee says. “There are changes in the riders’ physical abilities, yet often seemingly just as importantly (are changes in) their attitudes, their anticipation, sparkle in their eye when it’s time to ride ‘their’ horse.

“The hardest part of my job is explaining to parents the long waiting list of riders who want to participate in our program. We have more than 50 on our waiting list, and it’s impossible to accommodate them. We would love to grow the program, but logistics of time, facilities, volunteers and staff will just not permit it,” MaGee says.

HTR operates on an annual budget of $350,000. No student is denied access to the programs, and 100 percent of students receive financial aid.

“About 70 percent of the Heartland operation budget comes from an annual spring fundraiser, and the remainder is generated from rider fees, grants and donations,” MaGee says. “The rich and abundant rewards the students receive as a result of others’ generosity are priceless. Our ability to continue providing those life-transforming experiences relies on tax-exempt donations.”

Heartland Therapeutic Riding Inc. is a 501c3 organization, and there are numerous ways to donate to the facility, and specific programs can also be sponsored. Donations in kind are important as well. Among items presently needed by the facility are a four-wheeler, tools, feed, lumber and more.

“We are excited about the growth we’ve experienced, but that growth has also resulted in an increasing request for scholarships. A summer horse show and a summer riding camp are planned annually as additional fundraisers,” MaGee says. “We encourage everyone to call us … for a tour of our 78-acre facility … or to observe one of our classes. We know our students are changed by their experience; we think you’ll be profoundly impacted, too,” MaGee says.

“The vision to see … the faith to believe … the courage to do” is the working motto at Heartland Therapeutic Riding. Certainly two often repeated quotes come to life at the center: “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a person in all ways,” and “Time in the saddle on horseback is never wasted, but always time well invested for an improved life.”

Learn more about horses by reading Horses of Different Colors.

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