April 06, 2002
BY NIK HAWKINS / THE CHIPPEWA HERALD
You've heard the old adages: Laughter is the best medicine; an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But what about the healing power of horses?
Well, Chippewa County is no stranger to therapeutic equines. Two new area businesses use horses as a major part of counseling and therapy for their clients.
Liberty Therapeutic Riding Center, 8581 105th St., Chippewa Falls, uses horseback riding as a way to help people with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Downs syndrome, multiple sclerosis, autism, accident recovery, stroke and amputation. This is known as hippotherapy.
Through the Gait, LLC, located in the town of Wheaton, does not involve horseback riding. Instead, it relies on equine assisted counseling, where horses are used in helping people find new answers to several issues.
"A lot of studies are showing that animals are playing a part in helping humans," said Diana Stafford, a licensed marriage and family therapist, clinical social worker and certified equine assisted professional at Through the Gait. "They're kind of a natural connection for people."
Stafford operates the business along with Laurie Lessard, a certified alcohol and drug counselor and equine assisted professional.
Liberty is run by Rita Simon, M.D., and physical therapist Shani Johnson. Simon said therapeutic riding has only become popular in the U.S. in the last 15 years, but has been common in Europe for about 40 years.
Before hippotherapy even begins, horses already do wonders for people with disabilities, Simon said.
"Just being able to get on and ride a horse is an incredible thing for a lot of (disabled) people," she said.
This part of therapeutic riding is not as goal-oriented or measurable in terms of success as hippotherapy, which targets specific physical disabilities, Johnson said. But it's what she calls "the fun part" that can be a self-esteem and confidence booster for many disabled people, especially those in wheelchairs.
"They're down below everyone all their life - now they're up above," Simon said.
Therapy sessions at Liberty involve games, such as directing a horse through cones or throwing an object in a bucket while riding, as well as other exercises that enhance physical therapy.
The activities help clients increase the range of motion of their joints and improve balance, posture and breathing. Even the warmth of a horse's body will help clients loosen their muscles.
Simply varying the gait of a horse while a client is riding can also be a therapeutic exercise.
"This forces (clients) to use muscles they're not used to using to stay on the horse," Simon said.
"We also allow them the opportunity to kind of take control of the horse," Johnson said, adding that it helps clients learn how to do things for themselves and decrease their dependence on others.
Sarah Schemenauer, 16, took part in several of Liberty's pilot sessions in September and said they were extremely helpful. Schemenauer has cerebral palsy, which causes her muscles to tighten involuntarily.
"I really like it," she said. "I love horses and I've always wanted to ride. It raises my self-esteem and (my muscles) are a lot looser after I'm done."
Liberty will begin sessions again April 20 and will continue until October. Schemenauer plans to participate again.
"I'm thrilled," she said. "I cannot wait."
Liberty's staff is licensed by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.
While Liberty's clients benefit from riding, at Through the Gait, most of the work with horses is done on the ground. The experienced therapists and counselors have received special training in this type of counseling from a national association.
"We give people structured activities related to what they're struggling with," Stafford said. "We direct them to find the answer within themselves. We don't do it for them."
In one activity, clients are instructed to bridle a horse even if they have never done it before. Stafford says how a person approaches this situation can reveal much about how they deal with other challenges.
"I don't need to know someone's story," she said. "It comes out in how they handle a horse."
Horses are also highly sensitive to their environment because they are animals of prey, Stafford said. As a result, they are highly reactive to people.
"Horses will often mirror a person's emotions," she said, which is seen in the eyes, ears and other body language of the animal.
Clients can learn a great deal about how they interact with others through counseling sessions with horses, Stafford said.
Other activities involve a client getting a horse to complete a task, such as step over a pole or walk from one point to another.
In addition to aiding people with parenting, marital and drug or alcohol problems, equine assisted counseling has helped her fellow counselors, Stafford said.
"How they approach a horse is how they approach a client," she said, adding that counselors can learn from this and improve how they interact with their own clients.
And Dick Williams, a counselor at the Fahrman Center in Eau Claire, agrees. He said he was skeptical about going through the counseling sessions because he's had bad experiences with horses.
"Stuff I never dreamed I'd do with a horse I did that day (at Through the Gait)," he said. "And we could relate the stuff we did with the horse to how we treat our clients."
He and a group of fellow counselors were given the task of moving a horse from one point to another without touching, talking to or signaling to the animal.
"Long story short, we got the horse to move," he said. "It was a rewarding experience."