SANTA CLARITA, CALIFORNIA— Katie Pope began riding horseback when she was only six months old. Safely swaddled to her mother, the rhythmic motions would be impressed upon her for life. Now 28, she has spent the past 12 years providing equestrian therapy to physically and mentally disabled children and adults as an instructor at Carousel Ranch in Santa Clarita, California. Her mother, program director Becky Graham, together with executive director Denise Tomey, co-founded the nonprofit organization in 1997. With 20 horses of many different shapes and sizes—including ponies, miniatures, and a donkey—Carousel Ranch is well-suited to serve its clients, whose disabilities include autism, brain injury, stroke, learning disorders, emotional problems, and cerebral palsy.
Katie says the mention of horse therapy often results in curious looks from the uninitiated. Yet horses have been an important part of many cultures for thousands of year; far from simply being four-legged transportation, horses offer a rich and diverse means of therapy for a wide range of issues. The muscle-stimulating quality of their movements, as well as the relative ease with which they can be trained, often make them an ideal fit. Even grooming a horse can benefit muscles and joints, have a calming effect, and instill a sense of responsibility in those caring for the animals.
Horse-therapy programs can be uniquely tailored to dozens of different disabilities. At Carousel Ranch, the small staff and handful of volunteers craft programs combining instruction in traditional horsemanship with physical, occupational, recreational, and speech therapy to improve strength, balance, coordination, and self-esteem. “On the horse these kids are doing things their siblings can do,” says Katie. “A lot of these kids sit on the sidelines and watch their brother or sister play sports. This integrates them into the world and allows them to do things other people can do.”
Similar programs are making a difference across the country, and an increasing number of doctors have begun referring patients to horse therapy as well as to office-based mechanical systems that mimic horse movement.
The real thing, however, is far more effective. “Most kids want a connection with an animal,” Katie says, adding that her autistic clients tend to have an extra strong connection with the horses. “Some don’t have any speech or other forms of communication, and it’s so interesting when they’re on the horse because it’s like they become one with their animal. It’s really touching.”
Many parents see the improvements with their children as nothing short of a miracle. One girl whose pediatrician said she would not walk started walking soon after beginning therapy at Carousel Ranch. Another woman who was born without arms, and missing most of her right leg, can now ride a horse without assistance, mounted in a special saddle and managing the reins with her left foot. “I have seen the horse alone make a lot of strides in these kids’ lives,” says Katie. “Some kids who don’t speak in normal life start to talk when they’re on a horse because the movement is stimulating their brain. And a lot of kids that don’t walk because they’re in a wheelchair are able to stand on the horse with our help.” With so many success stories, Carousel Ranch currently has a year-long waiting list.
All sessions last 30 minutes, and no two clients have the same regimen. Typically, a worker or volunteer leads the horse with two spotters on either side, but what happens on the horse’s back varies with each client. Each exercise begins on a stopped horse, and as clients grow more adept, the challenge increases to a moving horse. Therapy for the physically handicapped includes exercises like “the mill,” in which a client grips handles secured to the horse, and then swings his or her legs while rotating into various positions. Others who may not need physical therapy find the best challenges are directed at their brains. “It can be hard for a kid with autism to focus with the horse moving, birds chirping, and the other kids having lessons in the arena,” says Katie, who might ask an autistic client to focus for one minute on a single discussion topic while circling the arena. “We try to set our goals smaller and build them up.”
What makes Carousel Ranch unique among many other equestrian therapy programs is its acceptance of wheelchair-bound clients who cannot sit up on their own. “A lot of programs don’t do that because they don’t feel it’s safe,” says Katie. “They say that if you can’t sit independently on your own, then you can’t ride in the program. But our theory is that this handful of kids need it the most.” Only the most experienced instructors ride with those clients, because safety is key. “Our horses’ mannerisms have to be really good,” Katie says. “They have to be used to kids throwing balls off their backs, or be ready for a kid kicking or screaming. We have to be able to trust our horses 100 percent.”
Horses also enjoy plenty of care at Carousel Ranch. “We want them to be comfortable,” says Katie, adding that each horse never does more than three half-hour lessons in a day. “A lot of programs would say that’s crazy, and that we could be working them eight hours each day, but we want to make sure they’re going to have a good life, and also be able to provide for these kids long-term.” Banner, an energetic 25-year-old quarter pony, is a testimony to this care. He has served clients at Carousel Ranch for 15 years, and is one of the kids’ favorites.
One boon for the horses and their riders recently came in the form of man-made shade. Extreme weather leads to cancellations, so Carousel Ranch raised money for a 15,900-square-foot steel covering that will soon protect half the arena from the elements. “It can get up to 115 degrees, and we cancel at 103,” says Katie. “A lot of students can have seizures and get really sick. On top of that our staff is here for eight hours in the sun, and horses can’t function working in that weather. The covered arena is going to allow us to cancel a lot less. It’s something we’ve been dreaming of.”
Want to get involved?
Carousel Ranch is dedicated to providing equestrian therapy for disabled children, creating a unique and individualized program to meet each child’s specific needs and goals. Utilizing a combination of vaulting (gymnastics on a moving horse) and therapeutic riding (both English and Western), they strive to create an atmosphere where every child can and will succeed—a place where therapy is disguised as fun.DONATE HERE