The Healing Horse -Equine Assisted Therapy

The Healing Horse -Equine Assisted Therapy

It’s Saturday morning in the small western town of Aguada, Puerto Rico. In the city’s arena, where riders and horses are trained (and portions of the roof are still missing from the damage of hurricane Maria), the energy is calm. Soon enough, the space will be filled with our herd of school horses, generous volunteers, and the abundant smiles and laughter of our special needs students.

The horses stand quietly on the railings as Annie Turri, director of The Healing Horse, the equine-assisted therapy division of West Coast Ecuestre, gives volunteers a brief overview of the morning’s schedule and demands. The program began in August 2017, starting with only a few therapy students. Now, in the aftermath of the hurricanes, the roster has grown to over 20, and as a way of giving back to our healing community, they have offered therapeutic riding classes free of charge to all children for six months.

According to the 2016 Disability Statistics published by Cornell University, an estimated 21.4% of the entire population of Puerto Rico reported a disability, compared to only 12.8% in the US. Therefore, approximately 730,000 of those living on the island suffer from one or more disabilities. It goes without saying; there is a huge need for accessible (and affordable) therapy services.

Equine-assisted therapy is a powerful tool with benefits as numerous as the types of disabilities and conditions served. The three-dimensional movement of a horse provides varied stimulation for the rider, which can improve a number of basic physical, cognitive, and emotional functions. The horse’s breathing, temperature, and temperament all contribute to a therapeutic experience for the student. The horse is used as the mediator to enhance the quality of life for those facing a wide range of special needs or other health concerns (including trauma), producing positive results in a different manner than more traditional therapies.

To love a horse, Alexandrea and “Cheveyo”. Photo Credit: Greg Hastain and Frances Davis

And the results are remarkable! Take Andrea, for example, an incredibly sweet-mannered seven-year-old with cerebral palsy. Don’t think for one second that her physical limitations dampen her enthusiasm to ride! At first, she was quite shy and intimidated by the horses, but after only one class, she was fearless. Her case is especially unique, as the proven benefits of equine therapy for her disability are plentiful. One can see, right before their very eyes, her improvements in strength, balance, and flexibility. Andrea can now hold her feet in the stirrups, verbally command her therapy horse “Cheveyo”, and is learning to turn using rein control.

Miss Andrea, practicing backward riding on “Cheveyo”. Photo credit: Annie Turri

Neithan, a five-year-old with autism, is largely non-verbal and was terrified of the horses. During his first class, he could barely stand 30 feet away from “Cheveyo”, and even this distance was quite stressful. It took Neithan four challenging sessions of groundwork and horsemanship before he was willing to try riding… but the patience and persistence of our staff and his parents paid off. The moment we helped Neithan into the saddle for the very first time, tears of joy flowed from many. He has overcome his fears and now participates in all aspects of class with beautiful progression. Neithan reminds us that every journey is different.

During any lesson with Zafiro, a bubbly five-year-old who LOVES horses, it is certain that you’ll be uplifted by her positivity and charm. Zafiro’s family lost their home and every possession during Hurricane Maria, and only one month after the storm, her beloved grandmother passed due to stresses of the aftermath. However, none of this stops Zafiro’s effervescent personality from beaming light into her space. Her therapy horse “Spirit” is the perfect mediator. Zafiro’s riding classes focus on language and social development, core strength, and muscular challenges.

Zafiro, bonding with her best friend, “Spirit”. Photo credit: Annie Turri

Watching the relationships develop between the horse and rider is priceless. In each moment, their confidence builds, self-esteem grows, and self-discovery unfolds. The depth of fulfillment experienced during these therapy lessons is difficult to describe, and the amount of respect I feel for their parents and the courageous efforts they make on a daily basis is tremendous.

Without the dedication and hard work of Annie Turri, and co-director of West Coast Ecuestre, Michelle Tinsen, none of this would exist. The Healing Horse seeks to provide affordable equine-assisted therapies for children and adults with physical, learning, mental and emotional disabilities. As the premier equine therapy program in western Puerto Rico, our goals are to provide positive equine interaction and therapeutic services that include horsemanship, sensory exploration, physical integration and adaptive riding.

The most personal way to support West Coast Ecuestre and The Healing Horse program is by sponsoring one of our therapy riders. You can choose your rider or dedicate funds specifically to therapeutic riding classes. Every dollar helps heal and keep these kids in the saddle! Click here to help us help more children like Andrea and Zafiro.

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