My daughter Haley, 18, is good natured, loves being around people, and likes lots of activity. She also has cerebral palsy, a seizure disorder, is nonverbal, has spasticity, can’t sit or stand unsupported and uses a wheelchair.
Having a child with disabilities is challenging enough but having one in Grand County is even more so. While our community has good pediatric physical, occupational and speech therapists, we usually have to go to Denver for doctors and specialists, and we make these trips frequently. Grand County also doesn’t offer the programs, services and support available to special needs children and their families in larger cities like Denver. But we did discover one program here that has had a huge impact on Haley and our family: the Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program at the National Sports Center for the Disabled.
When Haley was seven years old, her orthopedic doctor at Colorado Children’s Hospital in Denver told us that Haley needed hip surgery. Cerebral palsy causes children to have tight groin muscles, and these tight muscles cause the hips to dislocate. Both of Haley’s hips were dislocated.
Haley had the surgery in April 2007. Afterwards, she spent seven weeks in a cast that started under her arms and extended down each leg to her ankles, with her legs bent so she was in a seated position.
When the cast was removed in June, Haley’s legs were stuck in the seated position. Her leg muscles had contracted so she couldn’t straighten them and the muscles had atrophied as well so they lost their strength, all normal after this surgery. Her physical therapist, my husband and I then began working with Haley over the next two months to lengthen and strengthen her leg muscles, a long, slow process that was painful for her and not fun at all.
The physical therapist recommended therapeutic horseback riding as part of Haley’s rehabilitation and suggested we contact the National Sports Center for the Disabled. The NSCD has a therapeutic horseback riding program here in Grand County, located at the YMCA of the Rockies Snow Mountain Ranch. We enrolled Haley in lessons and she started in August.
As Haley’s physical therapist and her riding instructor at the time explained, the rhythmic and repetitive movements of the horse imitate the normal movements of the human pelvis during walking, helping to build muscle tone in the rider and shorten recovery time. After a few weeks of horseback riding, Haley’s legs were straight and strong.
My husband and I were thrilled with Haley’s progress, and now she participates in the program every year. Horseback riding can help with spasticity and improve muscle control, balance and posture, and we’ve observed this with Haley. The horse’s movement relaxes her usually tight muscles. Her balance is improving with the help of a bolster that staff made just for her last summer. Although Haley has poor fine motor skills, she is now learning to grasp the reins and pull back to stop the horse.
For Haley, the best part of the therapeutic riding program is that she has fun. She enjoys the horses (her favorite is Chestnut), the instructors, the volunteers and being outside in the beautiful environment.
I spent a lot of time at the riding center with Haley that first August and was impressed with the program, the instructors and the volunteers. Eventually the instructor suggested that I become a volunteer, too.
“I’ve never worked with horses before,” I protested. “I don’t know anything about them.”
“That’s okay,” he replied. “We’ll teach you.”
I’ve been volunteering in the program ever since, and I love it. The horses are smart and gentle, and the work is fun. The instructors are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and creative, constantly thinking of new activities and aids that will help participants improve their riding skills. The other volunteers, who are mostly local residents, are fun and interesting, and many have become my friends. I’ve learned that horses are amazing animals and can have almost magical effects on people with disabilities.
But what keeps me coming back every summer is the participants—children and adults with varying physical and cognitive disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, hearing or visual impairment, traumatic brain injury, paralysis and amputations. Some participants live here in Grand County, while others come from Denver or other communities in the Front Range. I love watching their improvement from lesson to lesson. One little boy with autism who rarely spoke was shouting “Walk on!” and “Whoa!” to his horse after just one lesson.
The Therapeutic Riding Program is a bright spot in Grand County for us parents of special needs children. It’s become a major part of my family’s life, and I’m so grateful for it.
The summer riding program is starting in June. If you’d like to volunteer, too, call the NSCD at 970-726-1518 or visit NSCD.org.