Horse therapy is community, faith effort

Oct. 5, 2010 at 5:05 a.m.
Updated Oct. 7, 2010 at 5:07 a.m.

Sloan Ohach, 4, gets near Bud the horse to thank him for his service after riding therapy is finished.

Sloan Ohach, 4, gets near Bud the horse to thank him for his service after riding therapy is finished.

When Judy Gillespie dug a horse therapy brochure out of the trash 21 years ago, she couldn't have anticipated the journey it would take her and her family on - not to mention countless kids and their families that discarded paper would reach.

Not quite sure why, Gillespie put the brochure offering a hippotherapy workshop on her dresser and mulled over its allure for a few days.

God took care of the rest, she said.

"God's hand was in everything," the founder of The Riding Therapy Center said. "It was fun - fun to see how no detail was left undone."

Gillespie noticed horse riding instructors were welcome to attend the five-day workshop in Galveston, but the horse-lover hadn't been involved in teaching for seven years.

That is until a phone call from a friend asking for help at a summer riding camp provided her an opportunity to become current on her training. The camp ended a day before the workshop began.

Gillespie could no longer ignore the pull she felt toward the possibilities of horse therapy. So she called a meeting with her husband - Hank, a licensed physical therapist - and their three young kids to get their thoughts on her desire to provide riding therapy in Victoria.

Her youngest said, "Why wouldn't we help the children, Mom?"

With that, the non-profit "Donum Dei" was conceived. Meaning "Gift of God," the now 17-acre ranch came to serve kids with special needs thanks to the like-minded spirit and support of a community.

After more workshops, Gillespie became a registered therapeutic riding instructor and accredited through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.

Word spread of Gillespie's venture, and people jumped at the chance to contribute what they could.

"They would call and say, 'I know a welder that can make a ramp,' or 'I know a gentle horse,'" she said.

Eagle Scouts contributed to the construction of some buildings, plumbers donated their services, veterinarians and therapists offered up their expertise and strangers gave horses.

It's now run completely by volunteers and parents who work with the kids and provide mowing, maintenance and horse care on the ranch.

But even with all the support, Gillespie said she wondered, "Is this really going to work for the kids?"

"After about five sessions, parents were saying they noticed changes," she said. "And we started seeing big changes. By the end of the first year, we were blown out of the water by the phenomenal progress we'd seen. It was just beautiful. Absolutely beautiful."

Taking a break from recalling the origins of the serene yet bustling ranch, Gillespie welcomed little Lola to another riding session.

Lola's father, Clint Anderson, tucked the three-year-old's blond hair behind her ears and strapped on her riding helmet.

Gazing at his daughter in the arena, Anderson said he's noticed the progress in Lola's favorite of many therapies.

"She's a little girl, you know, so sometimes she doesn't listen. But the horse keeps her occupied," he said.

Lola had a stroke a year-and-a-half ago and has been coming to The Riding Therapy Center ever since.

"She uses her upper torso more on the horse and has to learn to reuse her right side," Anderson said as his daughter threw a ball into a net from on top of a horse. "There are other things the therapy does, but the horse is just the cool part for her."

The once-a-week rides that 4-year-old Sloan Ohach enjoy are his favorite of many therapies, too, said his grandmother, Emily Benbow.

"This is the fun therapy because he fusses until he knows we're here," Benbow said as her grandson reached out to the nose of the horse he just dismounted. "He knows the route here, so when he looks outside, he knows where we're headed and gets happy."

Benbow said Sloan, who has autism and apraxia, relates to the horse, and the therapy teaches him concentration and how to give commands.

While the kids undoubtedly enjoy the riding experience, Gillespie is quick to explain the proven medical benefits of the therapy.

The three-dimensional movement of a horse mimics that of a human walk, which helps children with balance issues. The kids play various games and work on sequential movements while on the horse, and straddling an object with a rhythm facilitates cognitive learning, she said.

"It's not just a sweet little thing. It's made a big difference in the lives of people with special needs."

The medical benefits of horse therapy don't even take into account the social satisfaction kids get from riding, Gillespie said. Many parents have told her how fulfilling it is to see their child with special needs participating in a sport while their siblings look on, instead of vice versa.

"Some of these children, odds are they're never going to be in Little League. But out here, they're not just looking up from a wheel chair. They're up there on a horse."

Gillespie said she's been so blessed by the experience, she prays The Riding Therapy Center will continue to make an impact on more lives.

With the help of volunteers, grants and community support, Gillespie said she expects to one day build a covered arena and start a "Silver Saddles" program for the elderly.

"There is never a doubt in my mind. God - he's chairman of the board here. The whole reason we started this was to serve God by serving those who need help."



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