Magical Faith, Hope & Charity program rides on
There's something special about kids and horses. And special kids need a special horse.
As soon as she hits the saddle, little Courtney, a resident at the Faith, Hope & Charity home for profound mental disability children, sparks to life. Her muscles become loose and she rides with a natural rhythm. She is full of questions and so many pats and hugs for her patient mount that she can hardly be convinced to make way for the next rider.
Young Jake's body is frozen in a wheelchair, so stiff that he must be physically carried up the little ramp at FH&C's Courage Park. Somehow, when he is placed on the horse, he is able to sit on his own, straight and tall.
Adam is next. A sober, straight-faced little boy, he gradually breaks into a grin that grows bigger each turn around the little riding arena.
The experts call it "hippotherapy," based on the Greek word hippo, meaning horse.
They will tell you that the horseback riding has a specific medical therapy response - that the unique swaying movement of a horse's body tends to loosen the spastic muscles that many of the children possess. That the horse's unique walk - both variable and rhythmic - is similar to human movement of the pelvis when walking, and that it has proven beneficial for people with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities. That hippotherapy is proven in conditions from cerebral palsy to Down Syndrome, traumatic brain injury to multiple sclerosis.
No expert can fully explain it, however. You have to see it happen for yourself, and watch the change in a child's face. It's magic.
"There is just something that happens between a child and a horse. It's rewarding to be a part of it. The therapy of an animal makes such a difference for the kids here," said Kit Munden.
Munden, a local physical therapist who also happens to be a horse enthusiast, has been spearheading the program for its six-year history at FH&C. The idea was borrowed originally from a Sioux City program that had paired horses and volunteers with disabled kids. It's now catching on nationwide.
The medical impact was seen immediately. "For many of these kids, it's like their muscles are turned on all the time. Their legs will be so tight that we can hardly pry them apart to help them on the horse. But by halfway around the pen the very first time, you can actually see their bodies begin to relax," Munden said.
The magic, Kit didn't need to be told about. She grew up around horses as a child herself, and now her own daughter, Christine, volunteers with the program as well, leading the horse on countless laps for one child after another. Nancy Jensen, also a physical therapy professional in the community, also volunteers, riding on the back of the horse to help support the children. Members of the FH&C staff round out the program, which run every other week for as long as the weather allows.
One horse has given every hippotherapy ride through the history of the program, delighting children year after year.
"Cody seems to get as much enjoyment out of the program as the children do," Kit said.
The 16-year-old horse, outfitted this week with a glittery star and a braided tail for its visit to the home, is patient and gentle. It carries children one direction, then the next, and deposits each smoothly back at the ramp.
And for a moment, children - who many only see as something different - are free. Twisted bodies are freed to ride, challenged minds are freed to imagine.
"It is so beneficial, because it brings a sense of normalcy to their lives. Almost all children love to ride horses, and we think these children deserve that kind of opportunity in their lives too," Munden said.
One after another, they take to the riding with a natural grace, no matter what their other disabilities. They are somebody; and they can ride.
"There are so many misconceptions about these children," Munden said, leaning against the fence while young Adam smiles as brightly as the late afternoon sun he and Cody saunter through, while Courtney clings to the rail fence and waves to her equine friend.
"They are people with their own distinct personalities, just like any other children have. They each have their own thoughts and their own likes and dislikes, it's just a little harder for us to recognize them than perhaps it might be for other kids. One thing is easy to see - they do like horseback riding."
So, on the broad back of this patient old chocolate horse rides the friendship and dreams of all these special children. They ride, and ride, and ride.
It medicine. And magic.