Horses and healing
Saddling up with some disabled children and the animals they love
A tall, rangy, handsome boy needs a tall, rangy, handsome horse.
Zach and Eddie are a good fit. Zach, a middle-schooler, can sometimes be as skittish as a racehorse, while Eddie, who really is a thoroughbred retired racehorse, has a temperament a seasoned teacher would envy: calm but fun-loving, comforting but no pushover.
“Racehorses can actually be very easy to work with,” explained Chris Latouche, horse manager at Handi-Riders, a therapeutic horseback riding center in Oroville. “They’re so used to being handled and trained by lots of different people. The stereotype of the jumpy, ‘hot’ thoroughbred is often not the case."Stereotypes are willfully ignored at Handi-Riders. When Zach Williams, who is autistic, rides Eddie, he is focused, responsive, communicative and in control of both himself and a very large beast. When asked what he likes most about horses, he thought a bit and replied, “I like their feet.”
That makes good sense to Latouche, a tomboyish blonde from Alberta who looks the cowgirl part. She has worked with Zach for more than six years.
“When Zach’s up on Eddie, he has to pay attention to Eddie’s movements and tell Eddie what to do. He’s responsible. He knows Eddie will take care of him, but Eddie’s waiting for direction. Zach’s had to work hard to overcome anxiety. I’d say, ‘You can take the reins alone, Zach,’ and he’d say, ‘No, no, no—I want you to keep leading!’ But now he trots solo and models skills for the other kids. He used to get frustrated and bang on Eddie’s sides with his legs, forgetting that’s a signal for Eddie to speed up. You can’t be impulsive on a horse. Zach’s really matured.”
Latouche and program coordinator/head instructor Sid McBride—another sunny middle-aged tomboy—teach along with an army of volunteers (see sidebar, page 18) at Handi-Riders’ idyllic new facility on the flank of Table Mountain.
The ranch—with a spectacular panoramic view of the valley, the Sutter Buttes and beyond—houses the organization’s herd of eight to 10 horses in a picturesque old wood barn straight out of a Depression-era mural.
“We have trails going through the olive orchards, around the pond and up through the oaks,” said Latouche. “The students are crazy about the trail rides.”
Who wouldn’t be?
When a planned indoor arena is completed later this year, Handi-Riders, a member of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (www.narha.org), will be able to expand its calendar—currently two eight-week sessions in the fall and spring and a four-week session in summer—by adding a winter session and a longer teaching day. Each session serves about 80 students.
One summer-session morning, a group of mothers relaxes at a picnic table in the shade of the barn, enjoying the chance for a chat and a paperback while their kids are safe and happy on their horses’ broad backs.
Zach’s mother, Maryann Williams, says the years driving 45 minutes from Tehama County have been well worth it: “It’s fantastic for his self-esteem, his focus, balance and ability to take directions. And it’s fun. He lives to come out to this place.”
Often, the same kids and parents meet up at sessions again and again. “The kids are quick to make friends and be helpful,” McBride said. “They all get a chance to shine and encourage each other. And the moms can hang out and bond and compare notes, too.”
While their respective mothers share downtime, teenagers Ashley White and Valerie Struthers work together at a crafts table creating frames that will display their photo portraits on horseback.
“Here, it’s all about abilities, not disabilities,” Latouche said. Brighid Wester, a tiny girl with cerebral palsy, controls a pony more than 10 times her size, feeling muscular strength and mobility throughout her body. Cheyenne Rodriguez, whose apraxia makes language difficult, communicates fluently with her mount through her legs and posture. Valerie lights up with a smile that isn’t always easy to summon in everyday life.
Latouche related the story of Ray Russ, a 76-year-old man born with CP.
“The first time Ray trotted on his own, we all burst into tears. He told us it was the most exhilarating experience of his life,” recalled Latouche.
They are among the hundreds of disabled kids and adults (mostly kids) who’ve plucked up their nerve and mounted a horse at Handi-Riders, whose motto is “Freedom in Motion.” The organization has served the area for 25 years, offering equestrian therapy for physical, cognitive and behavioral disabilities.
It was founded in 1981 by local horse folks Freddie Holoquost and her husband Tony, a farrier (horseshoer), who raised and trained horses in Durham. They still serve as president and executive director, though they’ve retired to Lake Almanor. ("No more horses, but we can still come down here and pet them,” Freddie laughed.)
“We read somewhere about a horse-assisted therapy program in the Midwest, and it just struck us that there was a need here,” she recalled. The Holoquosts, who raised four kids (none with disabilities), joined forces with others in the equestrian and veterinary communities and gained the support of the Butte County Schools Special Education Department and the local SPCA.
“We got a pilot program going with Loma Vista School in Chico, working with about 15 special-ed kids on a few of our own horses.”
As the program grew, busloads of school kids from Butte, Glenn and Tehama counties were regularly visiting Handi-Riders’ original Durham facility, but the steady erosion of education funding eventually cut school districts out of the partnership.
Now, many of the kids and adults who come to Handi-Riders are referred and funded by the Far Northern Regional Center of the California State Department of Developmental Services. Some students who are not eligible for Far Northern funding pay their own way or are granted scholarships. The nonprofit organization relies heavily on donations; the generosity of individuals, businesses, estates and a particularly benevolent anonymous donor helped Handi-Riders buy the Table Mountain ranch.
“Freddie and Tony are the backbone of this place,” McBride said admiringly. “Their commitment is enormous, and nothing fazes them. We need more people in the world like them, who can make things happen.”
The near-spiritual connection between horse and human has been witnessed since the first red ochre equine was daubed on a cave wall, and the use of horses in therapy has become well established since it began in the 1950s. Books like The Tao of Equus by Linda Kohanov and Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin have popularized the concept of horse as healer.
Grandin, who is herself autistic, has written poignantly about her days at a boarding school for kids with emotional problems.
“The funny thing about the school was, the horses had emotional problems, too,” because the school bought abused and neglected horses dirt cheap. “I was so wrapped up in them that I spent every spare moment working the barns,” wrote Grandin. “… I wish more kids could ride horses today. People and animals are supposed to be together. … If you take two kids who have the same problem to the same degree of severity, and one of them rides a horse regularly and the other doesn’t, the rider will end up doing better than the nonrider.”
Formalizing that horse-as-healer relationship, NARHA trains and certifies instructors and grants accreditation to riding centers. Equitation therapy helps improve muscle tone, posture, movement, and mental well-being; its benefits are well-documented in reams of studies and papers.
But the reality on the ground—that is, on four hooves in a dirt ring—is a lot less jargon and a lot more indefinable bond.
“Horses are special,” McBride said. “They have those deep, deep eyes. Here’s this huge creature with big strong legs, but he’s gentle and warm. Every student gets something different from the horse. If you’re wearing leg braces, you get freedom and mobility. Withdrawn kids can talk to their horse when they won’t say a word to other people. Students with behavior problems get up there, and being on a horse is so overwhelming that the behavior problems vanish.”
McBride and Latouche constantly dream up new activities and games to make lessons fun and fresh. “Oh, tossing beanbags, maneuvering through obstacle courses, relay races …” McBride ticked off. “We do a relay where the rider maneuvers around poles, reaches a water barrel, fills a cup of water, pours it into a bucket and hands it off to the next rider. The team with the most water in the bucket wins.”
An off-horse activity called “Stall of Hazards” reinforces the message that riders need to look after their horses, too.
“What do we see in Falcon’s stall that could hurt him?” McBride asked. Summer students Michael Plumlee, Chelsea Shaw and Caitlin Wright found the obvious hazards right away—the rubber rattlesnake, the two-by-four with the nails sticking up—and, with a little coaxing the loose horseshoe, the twist of baling wire and the upturned bucket all got spotted and corrected as well. As wide grins attest, being in the caregiver role is a proud turnaround.
Transcending the feel-good pleasure of watching kids bask in success in a pastoral setting, there’s a buzz of real challenge in the air at Handi-Riders, a seriousness of purpose; everybody’s working hard here, riders and horses included.
Are there ever any less-cheery moments? “Sure,” Latouche answered. “It can be very hard for students to overcome fear, and sometimes they can’t articulate what they’re going through. One little girl with Down syndrome would scream with terror when we put a helmet on her. That’s not a typical Down’s response, so finally, I thought to ask if she’d ever been diagnosed autistic, too. She had—autistic kids are often extremely sensitive. We recommended a very slow, patient effort to desensitize her, starting with just putting a light scarf on her head.”
“Over sensitive” doesn’t describe Handi-Riders horses, who can’t shy at beanbags whizzing past their ears or bells ringing in a lively game. “I’d say one out of five horses we work with makes it onto the team,” Latouche said. The horses are all donated, and many are well on in years, with life experience that makes them all the more beloved and valued.
“Our gold standard was Dakota, who just passed away from colic. This was a horse that would do anything for anybody,” even stoically enduring a stint as a living canvas while summer-session students enthusiastically daubed paint all over his flanks like graffiti taggers.
Donated horses are carefully evaluated and trained. “They have to be calm but still responsive,” Latouche said. “They can’t be nervous about the ramp we use for mounting, or the wheelchairs some students have. They have to socialize well with the herd. But this is a great place for the right horse. Horses like to work, to have challenges and tasks. A horse that stands around rotting in a field will die.”
If a donated horse doesn’t make the cut, it’s returned to the owner or Handi-Riders finds an adoptive home. “We never, ever, turn around and sell a horse,” said Latouche.
Riders and horses are paired throughout an entire session, so students get to know their equine partners’ individual habits and personalities. “Rachel’s first love was Velvet,” recalled Denise Brightwell, whose 24-year-old daughter has been coming to Handi-Riders for 12 years. “She saw that black horse with the white blaze and said, ‘That’s the horse for me!’ But even though she gets so attached and is sad when horses die, she’s always ready to accept a new horse.”
Rachel has had a left hemispherectomy, the surgical removal of part of her brain to correct seizures, and was originally referred to Handi-Riders for physical therapy. “I’ve seen remarkable results, with Rachel and other riders, too. The benefits go way beyond posture and gait. It’s a wonderful program.”
Speaking with parents, staff, volunteers and riders themselves, one is struck by their sheer devotion to the Handi-Riders experience. One family enrolls 10 children with different disabilities. Another parent wrote on the organization’s Web site, “Where others had given up on my now 15-year-old son, the Handi-Riders team brought a bright light to our lives.”
A longtime volunteer, Cathy Brazil, first came to Handi-Riders on a high school “job shadow” project, to check out working with kids and horses. She’s now a year away from an occupational-therapy degree and plans to specialize in hippotherapy, an OT specialization using horses.
“I was amazed when I first came here,” Brazil said. “This place provides a level playing field for kids who don’t play soccer, can’t do sports, may never learn to drive—this is their own thing. They earn bragging rights. It’s empowerment. The horse is a great motivator.”
As Ray Russ, the eldest Handi-Rider (the youngest is 3), wrote on the Web site: “Handi-Riders verifies that cerebral palsy does not define me. My zest for life comes from knowing I can contribute to my fullest measure as a person doing all that makes life worth living. I love Handi-Riders, and I’ll continue as long as they’ll let me crawl on a horse!”