Hope, Health, and Horses: How Equine Therapy Is Changing Lives
Little 5 year old *David is having his very first lesson with Lilly the horse. David is a happy, healthy, active boy who deals with the typical struggles that go along with Down Syndrome. By the end of his lesson, David was following new directions, holding the lead, and tossing and catching therapy rings.
Eighteen year old Mikayla lives with Asperger Syndrome and was primarily non-verbal when she began her journey with the horses. She is now able to interact with students and both speak and make eye contact with many more adults.
I spent a couple of hours out at the Natchez Trace Stables (and the 501(c)(3), faith based non-profit Natchez Trace Stables Foundation), and I was able to be an eye-witness to these remarkable children while I was there. They, and many more, have made awe-inspiring progress in their individual therapy journey by participating in equine therapy out at the Natchez Trace Stables. The vision to include therapy horses at the Stables was first caught by owner, Larry Marsman, after attending a conference at Mississippi State University. He came back to his stables and talked with Valerie Steele who took his vision and ran with it. Together, they are creating “a place of love and grace and a place to belong” for not only their regular boarders and students, but especially for those with special developmental needs. It’s an amazing place.
Valerie says that the “magic” of this kind of therapy is that kids who have stalled or become frustrated with their regular therapy sessions can blossom with the horses who are naturally sensitive to the needs of these unique kids. She says “a child might give in to a horse when they won’t give in to a therapist.” Core strengthening occurs naturally because of the horse’s ability to adjust to the rider’s slightest movements. And, if the developmental issues are emotional in nature, the time spent developing a relationship with these intelligent animals becomes even more crucial. As Valerie stated, “if you can have a relationship with a horse, you can learn to transfer that to an individual”.
Typically developing students have been improving their riding skills for years out at Natchez Trace Stables. But now, because of the relationships that Marsman and Steele have developed with PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship), they and the other volunteers and staff provide effective and unique therapy for an immense variety of physical and other challenges. Some of the conditions that their students live with include Autism, Down Syndrome, hearing disorders, ADHD, and ODD. They are foster kids, orphans, and cancer survivors. Learning to ride horses also provides cooperative physical therapy in a manner that can’t be duplicated in a clinical setting. Healing through Love and Grace is the goal for Natchez Trace Stables, the only place for equine therapy in our area. In fact, their unique relationship with PATH, and the steps that they are taking to become an accredited therapy center, make the Stables even more valuable.
Five year old Mia Nasif of Madison has a rare neurogenetic disorder that affects her movement, balance, and coordination. Her mom, Sarah, says that “one trip to the Stables and we were hooked! Mia is super relaxed and natural on the horse and not at all fearful. I think it gives her something to really excel at. She loves the attention from all the big kid and adult volunteers who just dote on her. And she’s learning responsibility as she cares for the horse. She gets incredible physical and occupational therapeutic benefits while riding and I believe it is cultivating a real sense of belonging for her”.
Twelve year old Vivian underwent a spinal surgery to remove tumors when she was two. She was temporarily quadriplegic following the surgery and over the years regained a lot of her mobility. But her ability to walk was severely impacted, and she has limited sensory capabilities in her legs which leaves her in great pain if she accidentally overworks her muscles. In her short time at the Stables, she has gone from being lifted onto the horse to being able to mount on her own. Her core strength is improving and her feet have shown signs of beginning to straighten. (Which is paramount in helping to increase the distance she’s able to walk.) And this was all done with immense care so that her lessons never caused her to be in pain afterwards. Watching her with the horses was awe-inspiring.
Parents of kids with special needs in our area have such a champion in Larry, Valerie, and the entire staff and team of volunteers. Honestly, there are every day miracles to be had when kids work with these majestic animals. It’s a beautiful place to board, ride, and train a horse, but even more, it’s an extraordinary place of healing, respite, and encouragement for everyone.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.
Leah O’Gwynn Kackley, and her husband, Jason, live in the Rez/Fannin area with their three kids who are asking to go back to the Stables as soon as possible. She’s still overwhelmed with what she saw out there both from a medical perspective and a volunteer opportunity! For more information, go to www.ntstables.com and www.pathintl.org.