When you think of therapy, facilities such as hospitals and medical clinics come to mind—not a 1,000-pound animal.
But ManeGait, a therapeutic facility located in McKinney, is seeing positive results for those with disabilities seeking treatment who are willing to try a less traditional method of therapy: horseback riding.
As a therapeutic tool, horseriding is a rapidly expanding form of effective therapy, advocates say. Internationally, there are more than 800 facilities like ManeGait—67 alone in Texas.
About 25 percent of ManeGait’s 108 riders are brought to the facility as a last ditch effort to find a method of therapy that might improve their condition, said Lili Kellogg, Program Director and Grants Coordinator for ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship.
Todd Spenk bears witness to the benefits. Spenk, 23, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD in adults is often accompanied by depression and anxiety disorder, but since Spenk has taken up riding at ManeGait, symptoms of his ADHD have decreased.
Spenk, a volunteer for ManeGait, said he began riding himself after learning about the therapeutic benefits of riding horses. “I started volunteering just at the barn, and then I decided to ride here,” he said. “It’s so peaceful. I know for me, it calms me down emotionally and physically.”
The lush pastures of the 14-acre ManeGait facility are home to 20 therapy horses that assist riders living with a variety of physical, cognitive, developmental, sensory, and/or learning disabilities, including ADD/ADHD, autism, Down syndrome, dyslexia and fetal alcohol syndrome.
At ManeGait, riders, with a physician’s approval, are exposed to a type of therapy that was once not even considered a legitimate treatment method. But case studies have proven that the benefits of therapeutic riding can be substantial. These benefits include new skills such as balance, focus, confidence, patience and flexibility.
Why are horses a good medium for therapeutic use? Kellogg believes it’s because horses are non-judgmental. In a world that is aware and often critical of those with disabilities, horses don’t see the difference between a “normal” child and one that has a physical or mental handicap, she said. When a rider is able to guide a horse, the rider’s confidence and self-esteem is boosted because a horse is one of the few things that the rider may have control over in his or her life, she said.
Not much training is required to transform a riding horse into a therapy horse, but rather, acclimation to new techniques. “They all come very well-trained,” Kellogg said, describing that a majority of the preparation for therapy includes familiarizing the horses with equipment, such as wheelchairs and mounting ramps. A horse’s ability to adapt is one of the reason’s they’re such a good fit for therapy, she said.
ManeGait, established as a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation by Bill and Priscilla Darling in November 2007, hit its operational stride a few months later with the opening of new barns and offices in January 2008. Priscilla serves as the facility’s executive director and Bill as its board president.
Today, four-and-a-half years following its development, ManeGait holds a Premier Accreditation from PATH, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horseriding, and serves riders from five counties (Dallas, Collin, Denton, Grayson and Rockwall) throughout North Texas.
Spenk credits ManeGait with boosting his confidence. Riding, he said, gives “someone with disabilities a chance to move outside of their comfort zone and better themselves physically, emotionally and mentally.”
“That’s what I see as the most satisfying thing.”
At McKinney, Texas Facility, the Art of Horseriding is Behind its Therapeutic Value to Patients
ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship has changed the lives of the 108 riders who are treated at the facility. Equine therapy has been proven an effective method of mental and physical therapy for disabled adults and children.
A horse’s gait is mechanically similar to a human’s, so the natural rhythm of a walking horse assists the body in strengthening the core and other muscles. These movements have helped many riders with disabilities improve balance significantly, even encouraging some to take their first steps, said Lili Kellogg, the Program Director and Grants Coordinator for ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship in McKinney.
The standard minimum age for riders at ManeGait is 4-years-old, but under special circumstances, riders as young as 2 years of age have participated in therapy. Currently, the facility works with a rider well into her 60s. There is no established age limit at ManeGait, Kellogg said.
Skill levels among riders also vary at ManeGait. While the therapeutic riding program is the main area of focus, the facility also offers therapeutic sports riding and competitive events for advanced riders.
In addition to the physical benefits they receive, ManeGait riders experience an increase in socialization during equine therapy, an often overlooked but valuable benefit for those with disabilities. Classes of up to four riders allow students to interact with fellow riders without overwhelming them as often happens in larger classes.
In a world that too often characterizes disabilities as a deficit, ManeGait aims to close the gap. “Our job is to minimize those deficits,” Kellogg said.
For more information on ManeGait, visit www.manegait.org.