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Rural Missouri Magazine

Hooved helpers
Horses help therapy clients walk toward a better life

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by Heather Berry
Therapeutic Horsemanship client Isaiah Thompkins strengthens his balance by riding a horse backwards around the arena.

It’s 1984 and college sophomore Lisa Beck wakes up to a busy day at Cape Girardeau’s Southeast Missouri State University. Rushing to class, something goes horribly wrong. She starts tripping over cracks in the sidewalk and notices numbness and tingling in her limbs.

“I thought it was a stroke,” recalls the 45-year-old.
Tests showed Lisa had multiple sclerosis.

“When I went to my first physical therapists, they asked me if they were trying to help me learn how to use the wheelchair or how to walk again,” says the mother of two. “It was at that point I realized I had to smile, keep praying and fight the disease that was attacking my body. I wasn’t going to sit in a wheelchair and give up.”

After 25 years of various physical therapies, Lisa began coming to Therapeutic Horsemanship in Wentzville last spring. Here, horses help clients walk a path toward a better life.

Founder and occupational therapist Sandy Rafferty says Lisa is one of thousands who have come through the center’s doors during the past 35 years.

“We provide physical, occupational and speech therapy for clients ranging from 2 years in age and up,” says Sandy. “It just so happens that hippotherapy — using horses as part of our treatment — is our primary tool here.”

Therapeutic Horsemanship began as a dream of Sandy’s in 1975. As a therapist and avid equestrian, she was sure horses would be a perfect therapy method. Back then, hippotherapy was a fairly new treatment. Sandy knew how to make this work. But she needed someone else to catch the vision, too.

“So I approached the director of the St. Louis Easter Seals Society who said, ‘Great idea! You get the horses, I’ll get the riders and when do you want to start?’” recalls Sandy.

The center, which serves St. Louis, St. Charles and Lincoln counties, began on Saturdays only, with seven riders, three horses and a group of volunteers. As the years passed, the group outgrew several stables, added more days of service and eventually hired paid therapists to work with clients. In 2000, the Therapeutic Horsemanship board purchased 96 acres outside of Wentzville and built what is now the center’s permanen home.

The joy of getting to ride a horse during her weekly therapy session overshadows any pain Heather Clancy has from the cerebral palsy she battles daily.

“Last year we had 157 clients,” says Sandy. “We’re up to 25 paid staff, 25 horses, 200 volunteers and we’re open every day.”

The not-for-profit riding center provides a variety of therapies for physically and mentally disabled people dealing with conditions such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida, MS, muscular dystrophy as well as more unusual diagnoses.

“We have patients with Retts syndrome, Angelman syndrome, autism, developmental delays, mental retardation as well as behavioral issues and neurosis,” says Sandy. “It really doesn’t matter what someone’s diagnosis is — using horses as part of the therapy seems to benefit anyone with any disease.”

As years have gone by, Sandy has seen the medical community gradually come around to horses helping with therapy. She says a horse’s motion helps develop a patient’s strength, flexibility, balance and coordination because a horse’s movement most closely replicates how a human walks.

The center’s 14 therapists are all certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), which includes nearly 800 therapeutic riding centers in the United States and Canada. According to NARHA, Therapeutic Horsemanship, which is served by Cuivre River Electric Cooperative, is certified as one of only eight premier therapy centers in Missouri.

To Kathy Castellito, parent of 16-year-old client Robert, the center has made all the difference to her son since her family moved to Missouri more than a decade ago.
Adopted at 8 weeks old, Robert seemed perfectly healthy. But by 18 months, his parents knew something was wrong.

“He only had five words he could speak by the time he was 2 years old,” says Kathy, referring to her son’s disability as being severely language delayed. She says Robert had no interest in learning until he started therapy with the center when he was 5 years old.

“It was like watching a flower bloom,” says his mother. “Here, when Robert’s riding, it makes both sides of his brain communicate. He has to take whatever his instructor says and communicate that to the horse.

“We’re so proud of him. He goes to public school and is an A/B student,” says Kathy, who now works part time at Therapeutic Horsemanship. “Now that language isn’t meaningless to him, he can focus on something and retain what he learns. It’s marvelous.”

Where some therapy can seem boring and meaningless to many people, the therapy and healing that comes on horseback not only helps the physical but also the mental state of clients.

Insurance doesn’t currently recognize hippotherapy as an official treatment for a diagnosis. However, in most cases, it will cover part or all of the cost of the therapists who work with patients during their hour each week.

The center will offer two new programs beginning this spring. Horses for Heroes is a program where the center’s therapists and volunteers will assist wounded service personnel and veterans with their recovery. Another program, Silver Saddles, is aimed at senior citizens who need to regain balance and strength.

For Sandy and the rest of her team, their rewards come from the joy they see on clients’ faces when they accomplish something while having fun at the same time.

Client Lisa Beck, who used to own and ride horses before MS struck, is happy the center uses horses as part of her therapy. It has brought back fond memories as well as a pleasant surprise.

Last spring, when Lisa began coming to the center, she brought a photo to share with Sandy. It was of a teenaged Lisa who was serving as a side walker helping to steady a disabled patient riding a horse at a Girl Scout camp.

“See?” Lisa pointed out to Sandy. “I was once a side walker for someone like the volunteers here.”

Lisa says Sandy quickly pointed to the person sitting behind the patient on the saddle. “And see? That’s me!”

While she still finds it hard to believe how their paths have crossed again, Lisa is glad to have Sandy and Therapeutic Horsemanship walking beside her on her journey.

“Now I say I’m back in the saddle again,” says Lisa, “Or ‘Beck’ in the saddle as my husband likes to say.”

For more information about Therapeutic Horsemanship, to volunteer or donate a horse, go to www.thstl.org or call 636-332-4940. You may reach Sandy Rafferty at srafferty@thstl.org.

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