Fulfilling Dreams for Special-Needs Children
Time on horseback can be life changing for special-needs children. Directing a powerful animal like a horse boosts confidence, improves coordination, and teaches valuable skills — skills that can truly change the opportunities for a child’s life.
Such dreams come true every week at Helping Horse, a therapeutic riding program that helps children grow and develop through recreational activities with horses. Founded in 1989, Helping Horse serves an average of 30 riders each week.
The program is run entirely by volunteers — up to 75 a week — and has no paid staff. In 1997, the program moved to its current location on the White Farm north of Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I’ve had a lot of parents tell me that their kids are so much better today than they were in the past — in walking better and living better,” said Toni Hofsheier, who serves as Helping Horse’s instructor coordinator. “At the same time, I feel that I get a lot more out of it personally than the kids do. It’s very rewarding.”
Children in the program face a wide range of physical and mental challenges: Autism, Down syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and traumatic brain injuries.
“The movement of a horse actually simulates movement of a human being walking, and that’s a great boost for our kids who have trouble walking,” said Hofsheier. “It helps their upper body core strength. It helps their leg muscles. It helps their attention span, because they have to concentrate on what their instructors say.”
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“The wonderful thing is that our kids are getting excellent mental and physical therapy, but to them it’s not therapy at all. It’s just fun,” Hofsheier said.
Stories of transformation
Stories of transformation and increased opportunity abound at Helping Horse. For one five year-old rider, his nonverbal, nonresponsive Autism robbed him of forming complete sentences. Over the course of several lessons, he began saying the command words “walk on” to the horse. “Now, at 12 years old, he’s talking a lot,” Hofsheier said. “He’s our best speller. He can spell words that you would never think he’d be able to spell.”
For other children, the emotional impact is immeasurable. “The horses react to the children in a very gentle way,” Hofsheier said. A young wheelchair bound woman had such a strong connection with the horses, that they routinely would approach her and place their heads in her lap. Under most circumstances, a wheelchair might cause concern for horses. But in the case of Helping Horse riders, the horses seem to have an innate understanding of the farm’s young riders.
In December 2012, the John William Pope Foundation was proud to announce a $5,000 stories to Helping Horse. The Foundation remains committed to Helping Horse’s mission. To learn more about Helping Horse and their program offering, visit their website at www.helpinghorse.org.