Therapy for people with disabilities or special needs comes in all forms and at different places, such as doctor offices or rehabilitation centers.
A nonprofit organization, Freedom Hooves Therapeutic Riding Center, offers its services at a ranch in southeast Wichita. The sessions at the ranch involve horses, activities and volunteers.
Freedom Hooves is based at the D & J Ranch, near the intersection of Harry and Rock roads. The facility includes both indoor and outdoor arenas, trails, stables and a pasture for the special herd of therapy horses.
Freedom Hooves Executive Director and certified instructor Amanda Meinhardt plans activities and riding exercises that stimulate different parts of the body depending on a client’s needs.
She says the way a horse walks is similar to how a person walks. So Meinhardt says when adults and children who have physical disabilities ride a horse, they are improving core strength and building muscle memory.
“So if they are struggling with walking or crawling or any of those types of traits, the horse is actually stimulating those muscles so that they are learning how to walk and crawl and things like that,” she says.
The indoor arena includes a ramp so clients who use wheelchairs or walkers can get on the horses. There is also a hoist overhead to lift people who have mobility issues.
Becky Johnson, a 60-year-old from Hesston, is one of the 35 adults and children who participate in therapy sessions each week at Freedom Hooves.
She makes the nearly hour-long drive every Monday for her session and is usually matched with Diamond, a big brown older horse with a white-shaped diamond on his forehead.
“I think I’m ready if you are ready, Diamond, OK? Hi Diamond, how are you? Are you ready for me?” Johnson says as she greets Diamond on a recent morning.
Johnson carefully stands up from her walker, and with help from a few Freedom Hooves volunteers, gets on Diamond. She has multiple sclerosis, a nerve disease that has affected her ability to walk independently.
“This is the rogue foot and it does what it wants so you have to rubber-band it in [to the saddle] good,” she says.
Once Johnson is securely seated in the saddle, she heads outside on a short trail to the outdoor arena. Each rider requires one to three volunteers during the therapy session.
Two are helping Johnson: Kim Andrews is leading Diamond while Ronnie Price walks beside the horse at all times to make sure Johnson stays safe on top.
Price has been volunteering at Freedom Hooves for about two years. He says he gets as much out of his volunteer shifts as he gives.
“After the first lesson, they are no longer riders — they are our friends. I'm not just here for them at the ranch, I'm here for them for anything they need in life if they want to ask me,” he says while walking beside Johnson and Diamond.
The equine-assisted therapy has social benefits, too. Interactions with horses and volunteers can create strong bonds and have an emotional impact.
“We had one rider that really had not said many words at all and his horse's name was Ellie, and he said 'Ellie' one day, and, I mean, talk about tearjerkers,” Meinhardt says.
Meinhardt has seen the difference riding a horse can make for children with autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). She says they get the stimulation they need while riding to absorb information. So she creates activities for special needs children to improve reading, spelling and math skills.
“We have educational materials like addition cards, subtraction cards, things like that. We will actually have them hold while they're riding, and they'll work on their math,” Meindhardt says. “Or, we'll do things like…we have dice that they roll and then they have to add the dice together to see how many steps their horse can take.”
Price says many people are not familiar with equine therapy.
“The main thing I really like to stress to people is it’s not just a pony ride. It actually changes lives almost immediately,” he says.
Freedom Hooves uses eight horses for its private and group therapy sessions.
“We try to tell people we take really good care of our horses—we try to spoil them because we know how hard their job is,” Meinhardt says. “We just have some of the best horses. They're really well trained, and they're awesome. They are the true therapists.”
About 40 volunteers help with everything from cleaning stalls to walking beside a horse to keep a rider safe.
Meinhardt says they also use special equipment to make sure riders are secure on a horse.
“We have a saddle that actually has a chair on the back of it for our paraplegic riders so they can hold on. We have another saddle that has Velcro straps to hold their legs in, and then we use different types of reins and things for people with sensory disorders,” Meinhardt says.
The program serves about 100 people a month, and there’s a waiting list.
Becky Johnson waited six months until a spot became available in August. She’s already noticing how her weekly riding sessions are improving her strength and balance.
“I love Mondays because the whole rest of the day I walk with more flexibility. I sleep better at night. I have less pain. This has definitely been a life changer for me,” she says.
The riders aren’t the only ones feeling the benefits of their time with the horses.
Price works third shift at Spirit AeroSystems and then heads to Freedom Hooves a few days each week. He says he would be at the ranch every day if he could.
“I also have a different perspective when it comes to the riders because we're all broken in some form or fashion. I lost a son four years ago—it’ll be five years in June—and Freedom Hooves didn't fill the hole of my heart, but it stopped the bleeding,” Price says.
Price was recently named Freedom Hooves’ 2017 Volunteer of the Year.
Freedom Hooves has been healing and changing lives—one ride at a time—for 18 years.
The program relies on two big fundraisers each year and donations to pay for operating costs, which include the care and feeding of the horses. There are three full-time staff members and a board of directors. Instructors are certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
The program offers some scholarships for clients because health insurance often doesn’t cover the cost of equine therapy sessions.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.
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