The horses look ordinary in their equine way: four legs, teeth on one end, tail on the other; willing to wear a saddle. But Bob and Nancy Harrison, who co-founded the Colorado Springs Therapeutic Riding Center in 2008, have seen their horses carry special-needs children and adults on breakthrough journeys.
"They have a lot of healing powers," says Nancy. "It's amazing to see the kids on their horses. They don't realize that it's therapy."
In just three years, CSTRC has grown from three students to around 67. They're dealing with autism, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, blindness, deafness, Down syndrome, cancer, muscular dystrophy or neurological diseases.
The medical community has accepted equine-assisted therapy — hippotherapy — as a legitimate treatment. According to the American Hippotherapy Association, horses' movements give riders subtle signals that stimulate adjustments to retain balance and prompt rhythmic movements similar to walking. Riding helps with balance, coordination, perception, core strength and muscle tone.
Starting at age 2, children can begin lessons at the Mark Reyner Stables, a six-acre spread nestled in a valley on Palmer Park's western edge. Bob started working at the stables when he was 12, then bought the business from Reyner 36 years ago.
Bob soon roped in Nancy to give riding lessons to able-bodied students, with some therapeutic riding on the side. Now, the therapy is their primary focus.
"The horse is the actual teacher," Bob says. "We're just the spokesperson for the horse."
The center has 17 horses in various stages of therapy training. Students may ride the same horse every visit, although it can be beneficial to switch occasionally.
Before a ride ever happens, the center's staff evaluates a child's abilities and asks the parents about their hopes and goals. Sometimes riders sit backward in the saddle or work puzzles as they ride, improving their hand-eye coordination. Each student is accompanied by a "sidewalker" or two and a horse leader, although the four-legged staffers have proven their patience and gentleness during a 30-day trial period.
"I put them through a lot of different avenues," Nancy says. "I see what their temperament and abilities are. We have one horse, Cutter, he can feel when a child is going to have a seizure. He stops and looks back. You can't train that into them, but he can feel the difference."
Beyond the physical benefits, the students are happier afterward. Nancy mentions one boy with autism who arrived after a difficult day at school.
"The whole half-hour of the lesson, he just talked to the horse. He just told him all of the troubles. The instructor said, 'This stays here.' So it helps the kids open up with their feelings."
That instructor is Jaime Harrison, who works with her parents and is certified through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. The staff also includes Amanda Kute, an occupational therapist and hippotherapist, and Jennifer Carpenter, also PATH-certified. Soon, they'll be joined by a psychiatrist, who will lead CSTRC's work with the Wounded Warrior Program.
The staff is assisted by 150 volunteers. "They're the backbone of this operation," Bob says.
'A financial burden'
And thanks in large part to the volunteers, the success stories just keep coming: the woman in her 40s who's returned to the horseback riding she loved before a brain injury sustained during military service; the boy with Down syndrome, one of the Harrisons' original students, who can now ride his bicycle; a non-verbal boy whose first words were, "I want to ride my horse."
Some of the stories won't have happy endings, though. Nancy talks about one boy whose neurological disease has progressed so that he now must ride double with an instructor. Riding helps clear his lungs and gives his parents the comfort of being part of a supportive circle.
"It's a camaraderie with the parents, they become very close. Everybody tries to help out," Nancy says.
The Harrisons' biggest priority is scholarships for families who can't afford lessons.
"Our goal, our dream, is that anybody that comes up can ride a horse, that can be their therapy," Nancy says. "I don't want to turn anybody away because of funding. Unfortunately, the insurance companies have cut back so much, Medicaid has cut back on the therapeutic riding tremendously, so it's becoming a financial burden for some families."
This is so much more than work for the Harrisons — it's their life mission. Their home overlooks the paddocks and a nearly new indoor arena that still needs insulation and heating. But the cold can't chill the sunny smiles of students and staff doing what they love.
"They are amazing, these parents and these kids," Nancy says, holding back tears. "What these parents do with their children and what these kids do. And our adults are wonderful, too — I keep saying 'kids' because I think of them as my kids. It's so amazing that they let us become a part of their family.
"This is a happy place. They might come upset about school or something and they leave here with a smile on their face. That's what warms your heart."