Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Horses prove to be mysterious miracle workers for disabled
by Mike Tolson from Chron.com:
Of all the unusual Olympic events, from table tennis to synchronized swimming, the equestrian sport with the funny French name - dressage - stands alone. What other competition is customarily performed in top hat and tails?
So political pundits predictably had their fun when it was revealed that Ann Romney's very expensive dressage horse will be making its debut in London's Olympic horse ring. The fact that her family was able to take business tax deductions so that a horse could make intricate - and to the unschooled, rather odd - moves around a show ring with music playing in the background struck the cynical as one more piece of absurdity from the tax code.
Mentioned only in passing was Romney's reason for getting involved with horses in the first place. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998 after experiencing a physical decline that included fatigue and numbness. A doctor suggested riding. Just getting on a horse and being led around a ring was a form of therapy. Seriously.
Just how serious is clear to Houston's Christine Phills, mother of 19-year-old Cameron and enthusiastic believer in equine-assisted therapy. She can't precisely explain why it works for her autistic son. The physical improvement of better muscle tone and core strength is easy to explain, but even those involved in it professionally can only guess why the bond between horse and rider has so many other benefits to those who suffer physical and intellectual challenges.
For those who do it, or dutifully sit and watch while their children, siblings or spouses do, the connection is all but magical. Romney said that riding saved her life. It helped her regain strength and control, and it led to more ambitious competitive riding. Most won't get that far, especially those facing intellectual disabilities, but you never know.
"I don't believe in setting limits," said Lili Kellogg, executive director of SIRE, which operates three therapeutic riding centers in the Houston area. "When you have a disability, so many things are beyond your control. The idea here is to make everyone totally independent if possible."
Equine therapy is a rapidly expanding tool for those who work with children afflicted with autism and its variations, Down syndrome or other intellectual disabilities. It is equally useful for adults or children disabled by cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries. Therapists have come to increasingly rely on it for those suffering from psychological and emotional disorders, including soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who have experienced traumatic brain in jury or post-traumatic stress. Even troubled kids who are failing at school can be helped by riding.
On a sultry morning last week, Cameron and Chase did their thing at Southern Breeze Equestrian Center in Pearland. It was not dressage, though some impaired riders are able to get that far. Their weekly session was pretty tame stuff for the typical able-bodied rider. Cameron, who has been riding for six years, gets nervous when Chase goes too fast.
"We never thought he'd get this far," his mother said as Cameron methodically moved the horse around the ring under the direction of a specially certified instructor. "He continues to surprise us. We have a dog, but he doesn't interact with it. There's something to the horse that calms him down, and the riding gives him confidence. I don't know what it is, but they definitely have a relationship."
Southern Breeze owner Cathy Strobel had always been fascinated by equine therapy. Watching someone with cerebral palsy or a significant intellectual challenge learn to maneuver a horse was inspiring. But she didn't get around to adding that component to her center until she had a serious riding accident there 14 years ago.
"I went down with the horse and my hip and pelvis were broken," Strobel said. "I was lying there thinking my back was broken. I know you're not supposed to make deals at such a time, but I said to myself, 'God, please let me walk again and I will start that program.' When I started riding again, I found a therapist who was willing to work with me and we began doing it."
Today, she said, the therapeutic riding is the most rewarding part of her job. "You are making a difference in the quality of someone's life," Strobel said. "What could be better than that?"
Kellogg knows the feeling. She spent years as a competitive rider and instructor. She taught courses in equine science at a university. Now that seems like another life, and one that pales in comparison to helping people who face constant daily challenges learn to do something in which - for their first time in their lives - they are in control.
On this evening, she watched Ryan, Christian and Kalyn steadily move in an oval in the covered ring at the SIRE facility in Hockley. Again and again they went around. It was not a thrilling, fast-paced contest. It was really not much to see. Except to Kellogg - and their parents.
"It stimulates him in some sort of way that I don't understand," said Juan Carlos Carranza, minutes after his autistic 5-year-old son Christian finished his ride. "He seems happy. He is relaxed. And it's definitely helping him verbally. He never used to say much."
Every student is assisted by a specially trained instructor who stands beside the horse, and often there is another adult leading the horse around the ring. The long-term objective is to make the rider capable of handling the horse independently, a process that can take years.
"When they learn to control this 1,200-pound animal and to see it respond, and over time to have a relationship with it, that is huge for giving them for confidence," Kellogg said. "Animals are nonjudgmental. It doesn't matter to them if you don't look typical or have irregular speech patterns or may not have two legs and two arms."
Kellogg's head trainer, P.J. Murray, came late to therapeutic riding and now finds it more a calling than a job. Its rewards come every day, when she sees someone talk to a horse who used to never speak at all, or a child who so often must be tended to and is now, at last, in control of something.
"Think about it: They spend most of their lives with the world looking down on them," Murray said. "Now they are up on top and above everybody. It is very empowering."