Riding tall in the saddle

Story by Jeannie Stone

Riding Program Allows Disabled Children to Sit Tall in the Saddle

There was a time when horses were known as beasts of burden. Down a country lane in Pope County, a gravel driveway leads to a red barn full of hard working horses, therapists and volunteers. Nearby is an arena for prancing and frolicking. But the riders who travel the dusty road aren’t competing against one another for a blue ribbon. They ride so they may learn to sit up straight, learn coordination and balance, develop their leg and back muscles, and so their frayed nerves can be soothed. The children ride so that one day they may walk a little straighter.

Equestrian Zone is a non-profit organization that provides equine-assisted activities to persons with disabilities. Jodi Kusturin, executive director, holds her clinical doctorate (DPT) and practices physical therapy at Recovery Zone Pediatric Therapy Services. Equestrian Zone is owned by Dana and Kirk Warren. Dana is also a physical therapist.

Equestrian Zone began in July of 2006 with six riders in Chickalah. Six months later, Dana and Kirk Warren donated the land where the present outfit is located.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for the generosity of the Warrens,” Kusturin said. Today the organization provides therapy three days a week for 29 riders.

Kusturin and Warren, along with Aerial Finkenbinder, are committed to the therapeutic benefits of hippotherapy and therapeutic riding.

“As a therapist, I can’t get these kinds of results with my patients from any other method,” Kusturin said. Changes in balance, strength, self confidence and self esteem are greatly improved according to her.

“And making social connections,” Finkenbinder said. She is the Therapeutic Riding instructor for the program and obtained her specialized training from North American Riding for the Handicapped (NARHA.)

Hippotherapy has been widely used by physical, occupational and speech therapists as a treatment strategy in the United States for over 50 years.

“A horse has a gait most like a human,” Kusturin said. “The three dimensional composition of the gate features the same pelvic movement that we use, so the rhythm of the horse is very soothing to the riders and makes horse riding an ideal activity to foster the strengthening of the rider’s leg muscles necessary for successful walking.”

It is that movement, along with the warmth and unconditional love of the horses, which facilitate such incredible gains for the participants. Gains include improved neuron connections within the central nervous system.

“I was amazed when Karen Rogers, a speech language pathologist, taught me how hippotherapy enabled clients to make progress on their language goals because when you get them on the horse, the movement helps to support their trunk and activate their muscles to encourage breath support,” Kusturin said.

Amy Smith of Clarksville couldn’t agree more. Her four year old, Charlie, couldn’t say “Mama” before he started therapy, but now he can say, “I love Mama.”

“Every Tuesday Charlie rides Dan, and he looks forward to it all week. We wish he could ride more often,” she said. Smith, who has cerebral palsy, has made tremendous strides in developing a more normal gait because of the hippotherapy.

“Charlie has always had a definite limp, but, for a few moments every week, as soon as he gets off the horse, he can walk almost like a normal child. It’s there. We can all see it,” she said. “It’s amazing.”

“His balance was never good,” his mother said. “And the therapy has really helped him with that.”

But warding off Charlie’s leg cramps is a benefit she didn’t expect. “You have to understand,” she began, “he suffered from leg cramps almost every night that caused him a lot of agony and kept him awake. Because of the muscle stimulation he receives from therapy, he now suffers from an episode maybe once a week.”

This Spring, Equestrian Zone plans to offer a hippotherapy training course for therapists wishing to attain Level One certification — simply because the benefits have been enormous. Presently, there are several therapists who use Equestrian Zone. They include Shandy Toland, Karen Duvall, Julie Watson and Adrianna Bass.

“Physical and occupational therapists can use the horses to provide the sensory input opportunities to develop fine motor and gross motor skills in the children as well,” Kusturin said. “I’ve had one true miracle. I had an 8-year-old girl who had never walked learn to walk with a walker within six months. She required an assistive device. That was so inspiring to me.”

We’re working with miracles in the making every day,” she said.

Chase Wade, 16, is blind and has developmental disabilities. “For kids with disabilities, it’s so hard to find something for them to enjoy,” his mother Billie Hilliard said. “He thrives on this.”

“Dan the Man” is Wade’s ride for the hour. Dan is blind as well. “Oh, he’s in his zone,” Hilliard said.

“When they get him on that horse, he forgets his problems, and it’s easier for Jodie to get Chase to work on his goals. He doesn’t look on it so much as work as it is fun.”

“This isn’t a new concept, but we are so blessed to have this program here,” Kusturin said. There are 750 NARHA centers in the United States. Equestrian Zone is in the

“There are only two other accredited programs in the state. They are in Bentonville and Sherwood,” Kusturin said.

All the clients served by Equestrian Zone have special needs, but if the rider doesn’t meet the criteria for therapy or improves to the point where they are capable of learning to ride, they are eligible for therapeutic riding with Finkenbinder.

“I still have to teach my kids to overcome their disabilities in therapeutic riding,” she said.

“We all work together,” Kusturin added.

“We’ve had tremendous community support,” Warren said, “but we need more.” “It’s hard to relate to the public how much we need to sustain the program at the current level,” Kusturin said. “Some parents want their children to learn to ride, but we need specialized equipment, and that’s expensive.”

Warren said, “We need a cover for the arena, so we can remain open all during the year. It costs $84,000.”

“That arena is a naming opportunity for anybody who’d like to be a major donor,” Kusturin said.

“Feed is expensive. Even gas for the tractor is expensive,” Finkenbinder said.

“A lot of our time is unpaid,” Warren said. “When we receive donations it doesn’t go to salaries but back into the program. We have been truly humbled by the community’s support.”

A donor club is maintained on the web site and allows donors to sponsor activities or horses.

“It’s fun for people to come and get to know their adopted horses,” Kusturin said.

Volunteers have meant a great deal to the success of the program. The board of directors has been “absolutely awesome,” she said, “but we are in need of a fundraising committee and a chairman. Our plan is to have a yearly benefit dinner dance complete with a silent auction and rider demonstrations.”

It requires many volunteers to work at the barn, as well. “It takes four people for each rider,” Finkenbinder said. Volunteer training classes are held throughout the year, and volunteers must be 14 years old.

Currently, Equestrian Zone is listed as the Arkansas beneficiary of an online shopping endeavor called Cowboy-Up 2008 Holiday Tour sponsored by the Chicken Soup for the Soul individuals. A new line of books features inspiring stories for horse lovers called Horse Tales for the Soul. By clicking on the Equestrian Zone icon displayed on the site, 20 percent of purchases are donated to the program.

Recently, Paradise Donuts in Russellville raised $300 for the program.

“We’ve had tremendous community support,” Kusturin said. “Several parents are stepping up to help with locating and securing some grants.”

Some of those parents who help every way they can are Chris and Denise Davis. Their daughter, Haley Beth, 10, has spina bifida.

“This program has helped her develop a lot with her upper body strength,” her mother Denise said.

“And it has taught her to be more responsible,” Chris added. “Taking care of the horse is part of the therapy. She’s learned how to groom her horse, and she couldn’t be happier. Her horse’s name is Chocolate Dreams. How perfect is that?”

There was a time when horses were known as beasts of burden but at Equestrian Zone riders are laying down their burdens. As they go through Herculean efforts to mount their powerful and patient steeds, the children are no longer defined by their disabilities.

Because of these extraordinary horses and the devotion and care of their loving masters, the disabled reach up and out and over their physical limitations. On their backs the horses carry joy rather than burdens — pure, unadulterated child- like joy — and endless possibilities.

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