Therapy is a Horse Named Honey

A 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy finds a special four-legged friend - and more - in a Pennsylvania therapeutic riding program. Written for EquiSearch by David M. Adams.
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A 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy finds a special four-legged friend - and more - in a Pennsylvania therapeutic riding program. Written for EquiSearch by David M. Adams.
Kaylee Fello and Honey. © David M. Adams |

Kaylee Fello and Honey. © David M. Adams |

Pegasus is a constellation situated to the north of the Urn of Aquarius and the eastern fish of the constellation Pisces. The Greeks called the constellation Hippos, though sometimes Hippos Ieros (the divine horse). The Winged Horse or Pegasus symbolizes heightened power of the natural forces.

The simple joy of watching a child ride a horse takes on a deeper meaning for Fello family of Hyde Park, Pennsylvania. And whether it's medical, natural, or spiritual, the power of healing - by way of horseback riding - is special.

As Mary Ann and David Fello of Hyde Park, Pennsylvania watch their 10-year-old daughter Kaylee's face light up, Kaylee leans into Honey and brushes her with a light kiss and a tender hand. Once Kaylee's helmet is secured, her session begins. But Kaylee`s session is no ordinary riding lesson. It is therapeutic riding, combining a physical workout with the emotional bonding between a child and a gentle horse whose movments benefit Kaylee's impaired muscles.

Kaylee has had cerebral palsy (which is not a disease, but a physical disability) since birth. "Cerebral" refers to the brain and "palsy" to the lack of motor control. Although it is not curable in the accepted sense, an individual with cerebral palsy often responds to training and therapies.

"The first time I really noticed how much therapeutic riding helps was at church," says Mary Ann. "I looked over and Kaylee was sitting up in the pew: I thought to myself. Wow, that really does work!" "In all of her 10 years of therapy for cerebral palsy the quickest response was from horseback riding," says Mary Ann.

Mike Kaufmann, Director of Education and Communication for the North American Riding for the Handicap Association says the results that are a huge motivator. "It makes a profound impact on someone's life," he says.

Since May, Kaylee has been attending the therapeutic riding ranch, Harts to Horses in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, three times a week. If "healing" or "curable" can be measured in progression of enjoying life, this place is an important part of that process.

Harts to Horses is situated on 100 acres and next to the Kiskiminetas River. As you enter the driveway, three amiable and beautiful labrador retrievers, Max, Dusty, and Petey (they are a favorite among the children), two small goats, and a lamb are the welcoming committee. A barn (which, according to my wife, is cleaner than our cellar) is the home of seven special horses, Honey, Lady, Bambi (my favorite), Ledo, Duke, ZB, and Cheyene. They provide the magic, while ranch owners, Cindy and Eric Hartman work hard to provide the results.

The North American Riding for the Handicap Association says for individuals with disabilities, therapeutic riding has been shown to improve muscle tone, balance, posture, coordination, and motor development as well as emotional well being.

Beyond the medical aspect of riding is the freedom and self-confidence that is gained by riding outdoors. "It's so peaceful at Harts to Horses," says Mary Ann. " There's something special about the place -- it's quiet and calming."

Fello says she is amazed to watch the work transform into a labor of love with results.

"If she could, she would ride everyday," says Fello. "Kaylee has a bond with Honey (her favorite horse) and I think, Honey also loves her."

"Kaylee sees it more as fun than work," says her therapist, Kelly Mallon of Neurology Therapy Specialists of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. "I've been treating Kaylee for one year. It has improved her trunk control, sitting, and balance. And anything that gets the child self-motivated, ultimately has the best results."

Therapeutic horseback riding involves one of two important elements: recreational therapy or hippotherapy.

The goal in recreational therapy is to teach how to ride. "Along the way a lot of neat stuff can happen," says Kaufmann of NARHA. "If someone is removed from a wheelchair and placed on a horse, it takes them out of themselves. It helps the whole body to be something entirely different."

Hippotherapy - the use of the movement of a horse as a treatment tool - primarily is done with a licensed occupational, physical, or speech therapist as a medical therapy. It involves having the movement of the horse benefit the person's muscles.

Riding a horse approximates a normal walking gait in the pelvic, trunk, and upper body area of a person. This rhythm can be very stimulating to the muscles as well as the brain, Kaufamnn explains.

According to Carolyn M. Gatty, Assistant Professor in the Master of Occupational Therapy Program at Chatham College, Pennsylvania, the physical benefits of therapeutic riding include gains in balance, posture, and mobility.

Muscle spasticity and paralysis make walking difficult or impossible for some individuals, Gatty says. A person's gait is similar to that of a horse; therefore, many riders are able to experience this type of normal movement for the first time while on a horse.

Exercise equipment, traditionally working only one muscle group at a time, cannot produce body movements in a natural, rhythmical, and progressive manner.

Horseback riding is only a small part of an individual's therapy. Therapy also a caring step-by-step process, which includes the brushing, caring, and bonding to the horse.

"The first time we were at Cindy`s ranch we were kind of excited, but afraid to get our hopes up," says Fello. Kaylee had never been around large animals. She was even apprehensive near large dogs. "But Cindy talked to us for awhile, then took us to see and pet the horses. Kaylee even brushed Honey."

The benefits of this outdoor activity -- be it physical, spiritual, or mental -- can't be duplicated by any machine or experienced in any man-made environment.

"You are one with the horse. It's the life of your body that goes as energy through the horse's body, then down through the legs and back up again -- you've become one" -- Rebecca Lewis, MD.