As the rider completes a lap inside the spacious Stargazer Ranch riding arena, Katie Belnap’s eyes remain glued to Senator, the golden wheat-colored Missouri Fox Trotter. Her orthodontic gear sparkles in the noon sunlight; her smile widening as Senator and his rider come back around the arena and past the teen.
Like many 15-year-olds, Katie is infatuated with all things equine. But her time on horseback is also proving to be an essential part of the girl’s ongoing therapy. Katie was born with Down Syndrome and aphasia, a communication disorder effecting the ability to process language.
Her mother Roberta Belnap said enrolling Katie in the therapeutic riding program has had a profound effect on her daughter. Single syllable words used to be difficult for the teen, but now words like “cowboy,” and “Peanut,” (the name of the horse she rides every week) come easier.
“The time has been so wonderful,” Roberta said. “Her self-confidence has surged and there has been improvement with her speech and balance. We are very disappointed winter is coming and we won’t be able to ride again until next year.”
Even with just weeks remaining at the Stargazer program, Roberta signed up her adopted 11-year-old daughter Julie, who is severely autistic and virtually nonverbal.
“We’ll be very excited to see any improvement, but wonderful things can happen for autistic children through equine therapy such as this,” Roberta said. “Right now, we’re feeling very blessed this opportunity is here for us. It’s been needed for a long time and there are many, many more children and families out there – right here in the Magic Valley – that would benefit. This is so awesome and I’ve been telling everyone I can about it.”
Rising Stars, the program the Belnap children are participating in, was developed as a pilot program cooperatively by Primary Therapy Source of Twin Falls with Marni and Cody Porath to give kids access to the beneficial use of horses integrated into speech and physical therapy.
The program is near and dear to the Poraths. They already had a background and love for horses, and their 5-year-old daughter Hallie Jo was born with Cerebral Palsy and is blind. She was one of the first children to participate in the program.
“The benefits are plentiful,” said Marni. “It’s been amazing to be a part of this and see the response.”
Although many of the riders are children, the program has also drawn several adults.
Kristin Beck, 35, was born with Cerebral Palsy and lives with tetraplegia, or is “a spastic quadriplegic.” The condition hampers use of all her limbs. By her side is husband Monlo Beck, who is also a physical therapist with Primary Therapy Source.
“Horses are a great tool because the horse’s gait closely mimics the human gait,” Kristin said. “This motion greatly improves function, balance, mobility and coordination.”
Getting out of her wheelchair and onto Senator’s back once a week has lifted Kristin’s spirits and lessoned the pain in her legs, hips and back. She’s able to relax and enjoys her sessions immensely.
“I just feel so much better, my hips feel better, more balanced… even my attitude and how I feel about myself has changed,” she said. “It feels good to be doing something… a normal person would do. That feels good, to be doing something and enjoying it.”
Kristin, who is a writer for a Utah-based newspaper, has been on horseback for therapeutic riding five times over several years, but has never had opportunity for regular, weekly sessions.
“My hip pain does come back, I can feel it coming back in the day or two before my session,” Beck said. “I’m ready when the week rolls around to get back out here and ride.”
Rising Stars, a non-profit, has been successful because of the large volunteer response. Stargazer Ranch owner Carol Davison opened the arena free of charge for the program, which grew from once-weekly sessions to running twice a week this year.
In addition to a physical therapist present, for Hippotherapy sessions, many volunteers are needed for the therapeutic riding sessions, which are done without a therapist. In addition to someone leading the horse from the front, riders need side walkers and others in close proximity for safety.
Twin Falls resident Bob Rynbrand volunteered after his Kiwanis Club hosted the Poraths as guest speakers. Right away, Rynbrand wanted to be a part of the program and is a regular face at Stargazer Ranch. He’s even helped raise funds to see the program remain viable and affordable.
As much as Rynbrand has enjoyed watching gains in speech, self-confidence and physical ability of riders, he said the program has altered his life as well.
“It’s the highlight of my week,” he said. “It has been life-changing to witness the strides these children have made over the summer. When they are on the horses they forget about themselves. It’s about the horses, and wonderful things happen.”
Use of horses in therapy is changing lives in Gooding as well.
Earlier this year the North Canyon Medical Center started a Hippotherapy program, where horses are used during physical, speech and occupational therapy sessions two days a week. Hippotherapy has been shown as beneficial treatment for patients with attention deficit disorder, autism, cerebral vascular accidents or stroke, developmental delays, Down Syndrome, scoliosis, kyphosis and other spinal misalignments, Multiple Sclerosis, learning disabilities, visual and hearing impairments and more.
Like the program at Stargazer, NCMC relies on the generosity of the community. Use of the Gooding County rodeo grounds were donated and volunteers are serving, though more are needed, said physical therapist Tara Osborne.
Osborne, a recent graduate, has worked at NCMC for about a year and brought with her a desire to integrate horses into her therapy work.
Osborne first witnessed the amazing benefits of Hippotherapy as a student volunteer in Kansas. Although horses have been used in therapeutic settings for decades the practice is once again seeing resurgence nationwide.
“Hippotherapy is something that a lot of people haven’t heard of but the idea of getting a program going here was well-received by the hospital,” Osborne said. “I’m humbled by the response, but even more excited because this is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life.”
With an indoor arena available, Osborne said, hospital patients have access to Hippotherapy year round.
“Using the horses is another tool we have. We are still working on physical, speech and occupational therapy, but have the added benefit of the horses, so there is no additional charge beyond the regular therapy costs. Right now, I’m focusing on getting the program up and running, but in the future I’ll likely be doing some fundraising work so that patients don’t have to pay extra. A lot of keeping costs down is because of the volunteers.”
The benefits of using horses are endless.
After seeing how people, especially youth, reacted around horses and hearing how ponies and horses are being used in therapeutic situations Jon Pugh of Shoshone thought the animals could help turn troubled kids’ lives around.
After many years as the Lincoln County juvenile probation service coordinator, Pugh wanted to reach kids before they got into trouble. About a year ago Pugh started the Lincoln County-based Moon Creek Ponies for Prevention as a “way to keep kids off the street by working with a pony.”
“Whether you are traumatized or have a disability, you can communicate and connect with the ponies,” Pugh said. “It’s really been a great thing.”
This summer several youth took part in an “Adopt a Pony” program, giving them an opportunity to participate in 4-H. The group plans to go caroling around Christmas.
“It gives kids something to do besides get into trouble,” Pugh said. “We’ve got about 25 ponies in the program…word is spreading about the impact the program is having in Lincoln County and this could spread to the eight other counties in our district.”
Gooding resident Johnny Urrutia has been a professional cowboy, a musician and a real estate agent – but his most rewarding role was when he counseled kids as a high school math teacher. He combined that love with his lifelong passion and love for horses and became a certified equine specialists through the Equine Assisted Groth and Learning Association, (EAGALA), headquartered in Santaquin, Utah.
“It’s equine assisted psychotherapy,” he said. “I’ve partnered with the (Shoshone based) SUWS adolescent and youth program, providing the service to their students.”
The equine program practiced at the SUWS facility in Shoshone offers a range of benefits, including communication skill development, focusing on task at hand, overcoming fear and self-doubt and resisting the urge to react in a destructive manner.
As an equine therapist, Urrutia (also known as Johnny U) works in tandem with a mental health specialist with SUWS participants as they interact with horses in guided activities and obstacles.
The activities and interaction with the horses become “metaphorical learning,” he said, which in turn, promotes emotional growth. While students interact with the horses, alone or in group settings, the health professionals ask questions based upon what is happening on the ground.
The relationship dynamics and dysfunction between student and horse, which are non-judgmental and have no motive, becomes a model students can use to grow emotionally and create healthy relationships and attitudes in life.
“Horses live in the moment, whereas humans live in the past or the future, which is why we’re so messed up,” Urrutia said. “As the students work through the obstacles there is often a lot of frustration and it’s amazing how the horses respond. Students learn to remain in the moment and end up accomplishing a lot more than they thought they could.
“A lot of the things that happen are on the verge of dysfunction, but that’s when amazing things happen. The kids start to gain insight into their emotions, a lot of things open up and are made clear,” he said.
Urrutia said studies have shown that spending time with animals, like horses, can increase the amount of endorphins released into the body and decrease levels of cortical, which make people feel better and less stressed. He said the experience, including the rigorous training, has been great self-therapy.
“I have a tendency to see myself differently and its changed the way I approach my children,” he said. “This has been the first job that I can’t wait to get to.”
To volunteer in horse therapy, contact:
Rising Stars Therapeutic Riding Program, Marni Porath, 208-404-2418
North Canyon Medical Center, 208-934-8766
Moon Creek Ponies for Prevention, Jon Pugh, 208-316-8573.
Idaho Horse Therapy, Johnny Urrutia, 208-280-0576
For more information about EAGALA visit eagala.org, or SUWS at suws.com.