Equine therapy helping riders with disabilities

Jennifer Fry

Staff writer

Around since the days of Hippocrates, rehabilitation facilitated through the use of a horse has long been understood to be of benefit for those with disabilities. The therapy was in place at a hospital in the United Kingdom as early as 1901, and was later used to provide relief to wounded soldiers who fought in World War I.

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” Winston Churchill said. Dream Walkers Equine Therapy in Uvalde County has taken that statement to heart.

Founded in the fall of 2011 and with its first lessons given in the spring of 2013, the non-profit organization helps patients with many types of disabilities – among them muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, emotional instability, brain injuries and stroke.

“The use of a horse strengthens muscle and body control, gives a sense of self-satisfaction, and allows the rider to enjoy some independence,”  reads the center’s website.

Riding the horse sends as many as 139 signals to the brain and the inner ear, helping the rider learn balance and posture. The therapy also helps with cognitive challenges through improving one’s ability to sequence, to perform tasks and to follow instructions.

Classes offered through Dream Walkers depend largely on the weather. Through September and October, the center was able to conduct only two classes.

“It’s been a rough year for riding because of all this weather,” said Pauline Garcia, founder and executive director of the organization. She is a certified equine therapy instructor.

Students ride the horses inside an open-air arena, one without the benefit of electric lighting. Soon, in addition to the weather, the center will have to contend with an early sunset.

“It’s been a struggle, but I always put it in God’s hands,” she said.

Classes

Therapy classes are offered in the evenings, beginning at 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and on Saturday mornings at 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Usually, groups of classes last from September to mid-December, then begin again from January through April, and also in May and June.

July and August can sometimes be too hot to conduct successful sessions. Dream Walkers has 26 students signed up for the current session.

Program organizers recommend for students to take classes for 10-12 weeks before being able to see improvements; the average student is in the program six months.

Each class is one hour long, with 30 minutes spent riding and 20 minutes spent on reinforcement games. Students learn to lead the horse by squeezing with their legs instead of pulling on the reigns.

To strengthen their core, games for students include reaching over, while on horseback, to pick up a stuffed animal from a barrel and returning it to a different barrel. They also lead the horse through poles, step over obstacles and even play the playground favorite “Red Light Green Light” with their horses.

“It’s all done in fun and they don’t need to know how much work they’re doing,” Garcia said of her students.

“Each child gets his own learning plan,” she said, noting that she never forces a child to do what he doesn’t want to do. “We want to make it a fun event.”

This year, through Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District’s ACE program, 11 UCISD students are brought out to the property each week to learn general horsemanship and horse management.

Volunteers

Sisters Christabella “Bella” and Angelica “Geli” Lanier began volunteering at the center three years ago, when Bella was a freshman in high school. Bella was first to volunteer, and later her sister.

Originally, Geli just wanted riding lessons.

“I love horses so much. I just like what they [at the center] do,” Geli gave as the reason for her volunteering.

“She also saw me do it and met a horse she fell in love with,” Bella interjected.

Among the duties Geli has at the center are leading the horse around the arena and walking alongside the riders. She also grooms and feeds the horses.

“From a rider’s point of view, she’s able to assist in what she knows, too,” said her mother Tina.

“I technically learned more the horsemanship,” Geli said of her time at the center. “I think I will go back into riding later – soon, hopefully.”

At first, she was just a “barn buddy,” someone to befriend the horses at the center. Later, Garcia asked her to help out in the arena because one of the horses would follow no one else’s instructions but Geli’s.

Due to school and schedule constraints, Bella is not helping out this semester. When she was helping out regularly, it was her job to create games for the students and lead the horses around the arena before classes to warm them up.

What she enjoyed most was working with both horses and children. What she learned was communication and leadership skills.

“Whenever I’m available and Ms. Pauline needs my help, I’ll be there,” Bella said.

Benefits

Among the benefits of riding and working with the horses is building up one’s inner man. If a student decides to try a different interest and discontinues therapy, Garcia sees it as a win-win.

“We helped build their confidence to move on to something else. And that’s what I want to see – for them to be an active member of the community,” she said.

Mackenzie Pitts, a former student of Garcia’s who began therapy in 2013, is one such student. She started when she was in fourth grade and now is in eighth.

Pitts is now involved in the 4-H horse club.  As recently as spring break of this year she learned how to be a wrangler at McKenna Ranch in Del Rio, where she was able to teach younger riders over the summer.

“It kind of came full circle,” said her paternal grandmother Merry Dee Pitts.

Mackenzie took classes at Dream Walkers for three years because of hypotonia, or a lack of muscle tone. She suffered other problems related to the disorder, including not being able to climb stairs and visual problems.

Pitts and her family first heard about Dream Walkers through a flyer at Oasis Outback.

“We spoke to Pauline about all of these things, and she said that’s exactly what equine therapy does,” said Merry Dee Pitts. “We were at the very, very beginning [of the program].

“It was a very neat program, and her doctors noticed a difference almost immediately.”

“I eventually got to where I could dismount by myself,” Mackenzie said.

What Mackenzie has noticed most about herself after therapy is better balance and leg strength. Another benefit has been the ability to reduce her glasses prescription until she no longer needed them.

“It’s just something that you’ll never forget,” Mackenzie said of the therapy.

“It’s really a comprehensive program that doesn’t appear to be,” Merry Dee said. “Pauline’s a great story because she just had this dream.”

How it Began

In 2008, Garcia’s husband, the late Eduardo A. Garcia Sr. formerly of Uvalde, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in 2010.

Though she had learned to ride at a young age, it was not until her husband’s illness that Garcia returned to horsemanship. During that time, Garcia began to befriend a colt.

Originally from Canada, Garcia did not have her own family around her at that time. In addition to the colt, the Uvalde community stepped in to help.

“The community was there for me,” she remembered.

Later, Garcia learned of equine therapy and recalled how comforting the colt had been for her during such a difficult time.

“It helped me,” she said.

Wanting to give back to the community that came to her rescue, she began to pursue starting a therapy center locally.

“That’s how we go started – just on a whim,” she said. “And we’ve grown from there.”

Since 2013 the therapy center has seen 60-70 children, put in 11,000 volunteer hours, and given over 1,000 riding lessons.



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