Chloe Cunningham smiles as she’s lifted onto Tom-Tom, puts her feet into the tiny stirrups, and says, “Go!” as loud as her little voice can carry.
She is one of nearly 75 students who are enrolled in an eight-week rehabilitation and physical therapy program that uses horses instead of gym equipment. Part of the Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Stables, the 12 horses, five paid staff and hundreds of volunteers help adults and children meet physical therapy goals.
Chloe hasn’t yet been diagnosed with a specific problem, said her mom. She’s “developmentally delayed,” but the 2-year-old is all smiles as she’s led around the indoor barn for her hour lesson. She plays with balls and other toys while on horseback, all in order to increase her core strength and improve her other skills.
“Even the motion of the horse helps,” said Kathy Neal, volunteer coordinator and barn manager. “It stretches muscles that can’t get stretched in a gym, using a typical machine.”
The center is a nonprofit corporation and is one of the oldest and largest organizations in southern Colorado that offers therapeutic riding.
The stables originally were called Acts 19:11 because “We see miracles here every day,” said Christy Stettler, executive director. The group changed its name in 1999 and moved to land owned by the Pikes Peak Range Rider Foundation in northeast El Paso County. The group now operates on 40 acres of the Latigo Heritage Center.
The center is a premier accredited center by National American Riding for the Handicapped Association, which was founded to promote equine assisted activities for people with disabilities. Accreditation is voluntary and based on a peer-review system.
Called “equine-assisted therapy,” most of the clients at the riding center are children with physical, cognitive, emotional, behavioral and learning challenges. The group is part of the therapy for kids and adults with cerebral palsy, developmental delays, Autism, head injuries, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy.
“The horse’s gait is similar to the way people walk,” said physical therapy assistant Nancy Brooke. “And it strengthens spine and pelvic muscles, improves posture and increases joint mobility.”
Chloe, of course, is unaware that she’s actually doing physical therapy, as she rides the horse in a wide circle around the barn. She’s beaming, thrilled to be riding.
“It isn’t about riding horses,” Brooke said. “It’s about using the horse’s movement to enhance the physical therapy. Think of the horse like a piece of equipment in a gym. We use the horse with balls, swings, different things to help reach their goals. But a horse can replace every piece of equipment in a gym.”
A horse brings some things to a physical therapy session that gym equipment doesn’t – three dimensional movements.
“We’re working toward core stabilization,” Brook said. “And the rider is also reaching and doing other things that really strengthen the lower part of their bodies. An indoor gym is cold, sterile. But at the horse barn, it’s more like a game. They find out they’re up to the challenge here.”
At first, some parents are skeptical about the benefits of equine assisted therapy, also known as hippotherapy. But the process works – even for speech delays and delays in sensory integration, Neal said.
Last July, Jason started hippotherapy with an occupational therapist. His therapist worked on his sensory problems and his speech. Jason became much calmer and could focus better after each session.
His mother noticed a change as well, Neal said. During session breaks, he has trouble finishing class work and gets into trouble at school. When he starts riding again, the problems stop.
“We really do see miracles here, every day,” she said.
While some students use the horse as a gym – others in the therapeutic riding program learn horseback riding skills. The classes teach mounting, dismounting, riding positions, maneuvering the horse and various gaits.
“It’s important,” Neal said. “The classes teach improved posture and balance, but they also enhance client’s self-esteem.”
The riding center wants to branch out. It hopes to provide physical therapy and therapeutic riding for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and is seeking certification for that type of treatment, Stettler said.
It will need different horses to handle larger, heavier clients. The center has 11 horses, but would like at least two more. The horses were donated, Neal said, and undergo weeks of training before they handle riders.
“Tom-Tom is one of our new horses,” she said. “We have to make sure they’re the right kind of horse – we aren’t a horse rescue group. We make sure they can handle the extra equipment used, handle having three or four people around them, handle having balls thrown and other things like that.”
Tom-Tom doesn’t even flinch as a volunteer leads him around the barn, as Chloe throws a ball in the air, and as two “side-walkers” keep an eye on things.
The organization is very “volunteer-heavy,” Neal said, and is always looking for help.
“Every client needs at least three volunteers,” she said. “And some need four. It depends on how strong their core strength is – they might need someone to hold them on the horse.”
The group also uses volunteers to groom horses and clean stables.
“They do so much for us,” Neal said. “We couldn’t operate without them.”
The next training session for volunteers is at 10 a.m. Aug. 11, she said.
Another thing in short supply – as the prices of gasoline and hay increase – is money. A gala fundraiser is planned for Sept. 15 at the Norris-Penrose Equestrian Center. The event will feature dinner, live and silent auctions, freestyle dressage demonstrations and a demonstration of equine therapy.
The cost is $75 per person. For more information, call 495-3908.